School of Information Technology alum invests in future IT professionals
Matt Johanson ’89 said his world expanded dramatically during his years at Illinois State University. The education he received, experiences he gained, and friends he made helped propel the trajectory of his career and personal life.
Today Johanson is the senior vice president of lean management at Discover Financial Services. He and his wife, Sue, recently established the Matt and Sue Johanson Diversity in Technology Fund to help support the next generation of technology professionals. The $100,000 gift supports scholarship, one of the three pillars of Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State.
Helping aspiring technology professionals
The fund will provide scholarships to students in the School of Information Technology, with preference given to underrepresented female students pursuing an internship for academic credit. “Diversity and inclusion is a passionate topic for me. The very best thoughts require a high volume of ideas and diversity of thought. We need more diverse voices in technology,” Johanson said. “That passion for diversity and the ways my ISU education impacted my life inspired us to create this scholarship.”
Mary Elaine Califf, associate professor and director of the School of Information Technology said not only will this scholarship help recruit and retain students, but it also offers a new way to support students who could experience financial barriers, particularly over the summer, when trying to gain internship experience. “We find students who have internships almost always have jobs or multiple job offers when they graduate, while it can take longer for students who haven’t had an internship,” said Califf.
A foundation for success
Johanson grew up in the Chicago suburbs and arrived at Illinois State as a first generation college student. When reflecting on his time at Illinois State, three areas in particular stand out. First were his professors and coursework.
In his first Applied Computer Science course, he quickly learned the value and importance of learning how to solve problems. Professor David Wallace was instrumental in teaching Johanson how computers could be used to solve business problems. In Professor Larry Brumbaugh’s class, the big picture came into view for Johanson. “This is where I really understood what computers could do at scale,” he shared.
Johanson also built life-long friendships at ISU. Three of his closest friendships today began in the classrooms of Stevenson Hall. He and one of those friends stayed at ISU between their sophomore and junior years for summer courses. “He was a Bone Scholar and we had this great relationship where we really challenged each other to grow and be our best.”
“One of my favorite memories is us together in a macro accounting class over the summer. Two nerds sitting front and center, competing for the best grade.”
Finally, with his strong academic foundation and support from friends, Johanson landed a paid co-op position, similar to an internship, at Eastman Kodak. “I was in an environment where I could put everything I’d learned to use and it was kind of mind blowing to me.”
His co-op was in Rochester, New York. That was a big deal for a kid who had only left Illinois a handful of times before then. This experience changed the course of his professional and personal life. It was at Kodak he met Sue—they’ve been married 28 years and are the proud parents of four children.
Re-connecting with Illinois State
For several years following graduation, Johanson did not have much interaction with the University. That changed in 2011 when he was contacted by the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST) dean and development officer who invited him to lunch.
“They shared their hopes and dreams for the College of Applied Science and Technology and asked if I would be a part of an advisory council.”
Serving on the advisory council reconnected him with the University and reminded him of how valuable his ISU experience had been. “Attending ISU was an awakening for me. It was four years of near-constant moments of shock and learning and seeing what is possible in life.”
During his time on the advisory council, Johanson also learned how the financial landscape of higher education had changed. “State funding alone was not going to be enough. There is a strong need for alumni to step up and be engaged and active in our giving.”
In 2016 he was honored to be inducted into the CAST Hall of Fame. For Johanson, the best part of that day was having his parents present. “They made so many sacrifices to help fund my education. Far and away the best part was that I had a really unique opportunity to show them the impact they have made.”
Helping Redbirds rise
Johanson’s employer, Discover Financial Services, employs many Illinois State University interns and alumni. Each summer he hosts an alumni/intern reception to help facilitate relationships. Interns get to learn more about career paths at Discover and employees feel more connected to Illinois State through new relationships with other alumni and current students.
In 2017, Johanson also accepted an invitation from Todd McLoda, dean of CAST and Katelyn Jacobs, CAST development director, to serve on the National Campaign Committee for the Redbirds Rising campaign. This volunteer committee extends the reach of the University in promoting the campaign and communicating about the impact of philanthropic support. “If I could help more students have the same type of life-altering experience at ISU as I did, why wouldn’t I want to do that?” he said.
When asked what advice he might give to other alumni interested in philanthropically supporting ISU, he said, “I would challenge people to think sacrificially and to think long-term. Don’t think about what extra you have to give, think about what you can do without in order to be a part of this campaign. And don’t think just about what you can do here and now, think about what you can do over the next several years. Almost all of us can afford to do a little less for ourselves and a little more to serve others.”