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Jersey City Campus Uncovers Its Own “Hidden Figure”

Students at a Black History Month celebration were surprised to discover the prestigious early career of instructor Marion Johnson

When students of Branford Hall’s Jersey City campus arrived at their orientation room on February 22, they expected to watch the 2016 Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures, about the role of three African American women mathematicians in NASA in the early 1960s. What they didn’t expect was to hear from one of their own instructors, Ms. Marion Johnson—who, it turns out, is also a “hidden figure.”

As the students soon learned, Ms. Johnson had begun her career as an associate engineer for Boeing, a job she landed right after graduating from Talladega College in Alabama in 1967, with a degree in mathematics. At the time, Boeing was one of the lead contractors with NASA to build the Saturn V rockets. Her team at Boeing was based near Hunstville, AL, at the Redstone Arsenal—part of which has since become the Marshall Space Flight Center. This technology was critical for the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969—the first lunar landing, made famous by Neil Armstrong’s quote, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Ms. Johnson says, “I remember that day like it was yesterday. At the time we were all excited about the outcome and just being a part of it.”

She was one of a handful of women, and they all worked in different groups in the company. (“When I saw the movie,” Ms. Johnson recalls, “I thought, ‘That’s just like us!’”) She worked in the launch systems branch, responsible for preparing data input for simulations called vehicle-piece impact trajectories. This enabled the company to know that, if pieces of a rocket would fall to earth after a launch, where exactly they would land, so those areas could be evacuated in advance if need be. She was very precise in her work, and received a commendation from Boeing in March 1969 for 20 successful trial runs in 20 attempts.

And that wasn’t the only honor she received. Ms. Johnson’s name is also in the Roll of Honor for the Apollo 11/Saturn V mission that is on record at the Library of Congress and at the Smithsonian Institution. As the years went by, she mentioned that period of her life to her husband and three daughters, but the importance of it never fully sank in. Until recently.

The movie made a big impression on Ms. Johnson, who had not been aware of the contributions of the women mathematicians who had come before her. “It was eye opening for me, to learn that I was standing on the shoulders of these ladies,” she says. “I think it was also eye-opening for younger people who don’t understand what we went through and had to endure, but also how we continued to advance ourselves, were proactive, and didn’t let anything stop us.”

After the Apollo 11 mission was over, Ms. Johnson realized that, to stay with Boeing, whose contract with NASA was ending, she’d have to pursue an engineering degree. “Many of the staff members were being transferred to Seattle,” she recalls, “and I was less interested in doing that than in continuing to work with my mathematics training.” This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as IBM had come out with computers earlier in the decade and corporate America needed a lot of help training staff members to program them. She was soon hired by Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company based in New York City, and she worked in computers for the duration of her career. This ultimately led her to work as an instructor at Branford Hall in the Computer Networking and Security program.

At the event on the 22nd, Ms. Johnson spoke to the students about her own journey in school—having initially earned a scholarship to college, and then enjoying herself so much that she temporarily lost it. She told them how she got motivated, took out a loan, returned to school, and got her grades up so much that she earned back the scholarship. She likes to tell her students, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”

“The students made me feel proud on that day,” she says. “I cannot put into words how it felt to be honored as part of this presentation and see all these materials on display from my past.” She notes that many students she had not known before stop by her classroom, just to say hello. Her accomplishments are hidden no more, but Ms. Johnson still feels she has work to do—in training the next generation.

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This article is part of the Branford Hall weekly blog. We offer a range of career training programs and strive to support our students in reaching their goals personally and professionally. Reach out to us to learn more.