After paying her own way through school, OCOB alumna Katherine Johnson wanted to help a new generation of business students with similar needs.
By Grace Power Smith
The Orfalea College of Business Accounting Department has one of the most robust scholarship programs on campus with 63 scholarships awarded last year, according to executive director for accounting excellence Sheri Boscaro. Many Cal Poly accounting alumni have given back to the students who sit where they once did.
Most recently, alumna Katherine Johnson founded a scholarship that would provide an accounting student with coverage for all their education-related expenses for a year.
Johnson was one of nine children in her house growing up. She moved to San Luis Obispo with her family from Vandenberg Air Force Base in the third grade, and attended school in the city up until she graduated from Cal Poly in 1981.
As she looks back on her college experience, she fondly remembers her favorite class — a mergers and acquisition class — and the time the Cal Poly football team won the championship bowl in Las Vegas while she watched from home on television. But, Johnson also recalls how she had to devote many hours at work to pay her way through school. Her parents couldn’t afford to put all their children through college on one income, but did allow her to live at home to save money on rent.
By the time her senior year rolled around, Johnson was working 40 hours per week, in addition to her workload for classes. To accomplish this, she spent Saturdays and many afternoons working at her brother-in-law’s accounting firm and dedicated the rest of her time to her studies.
“Having the full class load and having to work, I had to make really efficient use of my time,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at the library just finding a cubby in the corner, and I would spend as many hours as it took to just get homework done.”Katherine Johnson
“Having the full class load and having to work, I had to make really efficient use of my time,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at the library just finding a cubby in the corner, and I would spend as many hours as it took to just get homework done.”
She felt like her college experience was different from many other students’ because, while her peers were involved in clubs and extracurriculars, Johnson needed to make sure she could deliver a tuition check every quarter. However, this allowed her to develop time management skills and a work ethic that would help her succeed in her career after graduation. Johnson graduated cum laude from Cal Poly on June 13, 1981, words that are blazoned on her diploma, which she stores in a fireproof cabinet to keep safe.
She got her first job after graduation as an auditor at a firm in San Jose, where she stayed for a little over four years. “It was a big change to go from working at this tiny tax firm in San Luis Obispo to working audits on big public companies,” she recalls. “So, it took me a while to really find my groove.”
She went on to work for numerous big companies and smaller firms in the Bay Area and held job titles such as financial reporting accountant, assistant controller, and general accounting manager. At one point, she did freelance work training start-ups on how to use an accounting software package she had experience with from a previous job.
“I always enjoyed the smaller companies,” she says. “That was a better fit for me. I really enjoyed working in that environment.”
Johnson retired at age 40 and went on to volunteer at two schools and the Stanford Children’s Hospital. She was a cross country and track and field coach at Los Altos High School for three years and participated in a reading buddies program at the Mountain View Elementary Schools for eight years.
“When I got the email this summer saying I got the scholarship I was like, ‘What in the world?’ And I called my mom immediately, and I thought, ‘This is amazing!’”Celina Bernal
“It was so rewarding to see these kids come alive in their writing skills,” she says. “The teachers would always say as these students moved up a grade, they always knew which one of the kids was in the writing buddy programs because they had better writing skills.”
It wasn’t until the year 2000, after Johnson had retired, that she started thinking about the scholarship. She was inspired by working with her husband, Eric Johnson, on establishing a professorship at the university where he did his graduate work.
In 2018 she met with Boscaro and OCOB’s assistant dean of advancement, Mary Kelting, who each helped materialize the scholarship. Drawing on her experiences, Johnson wanted the scholarship to go to a student who, like her, didn’t have financial support through college. They also ultimately decided that a recipient would be someone who needed financial support, met a certain GPA requirement, and who graduated from a high school in California.
“I didn’t really have anyone to throw me a lifeline,” Johnson says, “even though my parents were very gracious in letting me live with them. And I just remember how it was a lot of work.”
In 2020, accounting student Celina Bernal was the first recipient of the Katherine and Eric Johnson Accounting Discipline Scholarship. Bernal says she was shocked when she received the notice that she would not have to worry about money for her education expenses for a year.
“When I got the email this summer saying I got the scholarship I was like, ‘What in the world?’ And I called my mom immediately, and I thought, ‘This is amazing!’” Bernal recalls.
“Her passion for really seeing her impact was what was inspiring. Having a donor that really wanted to make a specific impact and to be a part of the process was really awesome.”Sheri Boscaro
She says college had been her dream in high school, but even with financial aid offerings, her family couldn’t pay the tuition, which felt like “a ton of bricks” falling on her. She had to take out loans even with Cal Poly’s financial aid package.
Bernal is in her second year as a Business Administration student with a concentration in accounting, and she is hoping to add Spanish as a minor. “I’m really grateful that I’m here just because of the business program,” she says. “I feel like it’s not hyped up enough, how great it is.”
Although there was no banquet to congratulate scholarship recipients due to COVID-19, Johnson says she would like to stay up-to-date on who will receive her scholarship every year. “It’s just an honor to be able to help someone else advance their education so they can get out there into the working world,” Johnson says.
Boscaro says Johnson is extremely passionate about helping students, and it’s “so cool” how involved she was in creating the scholarship. “Her passion for really seeing her impact was what was inspiring,” says Boscaro. “Having a donor that really wanted to make a specific impact and to be a part of the process was really awesome.”
Johnson says she appreciates what she learned during her time at Cal Poly and how it led her to have a successful and rewarding career.
“Follow your passion,” she says when asked what advice she would give to graduating students. “Do what you love. Don’t give up. And don’t be afraid to make changes in your career along the way.”