The College of Applied Sciences and Technology (CAST) sends its graduates out to the world prepared to hit the ground running and leave their mark.

With six departments and two schools, CAST offers students the chance to chase their passions and carve out their own niches. Three former students are doing just that by making history on the bench, finding innovative ways to foster in a more equitable workforce, and establishing common ground to create symbols of diplomacy.

As Carla Barnes ’93, Matt Johanson ’89, and Jeff Williams ’07 go to show, a CAST degree from Illinois State University is a valuable tool as they work to shape a better society.

Carla Barnes ’93
Circuit Court judge

Judge Carla Barnes in a courtroom
Judge Carla Barnes

At just 11 years old, Carla Barnes ’93 had no place to go. Her mother was not only single with four children but had also fallen ill.

Barnes’ older sister, Sharon ’86, was a resident assistant at Wright Hall at the time and had her own room. To keep her suddenly homeless little sister safe, Sharon snuck Carla in as a secret roommate.

While the times were certainly tough, that stint calling Wright Hall home at such a young age sparked an innate curiosity and understanding of the world. She experienced a college life, showering in the residence halls and eating in campus dining facilities. Carla walked around the Quad, hung out at the Bone Student Center, and devoured books at the Normal Public Library.

A decade later, she’d graduate from Illinois State with a degree in criminal justice sciences, performing well enough to get into law school and launching her judicial career. Last January, the Illinois Supreme Court selected her as the first Black judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit.

Despite fighting her own battle, Barnes’ mother never gave up and always pushed her four children—all of whom went on to get a college degree—toward higher education, instilling the values of a strong work ethic and being well-read. That influence swayed Barnes toward becoming an attorney so she could fight for others who needed someone to believe in them.

“I wanted to help people and be an example of never being a victim of your circumstances,” said Barnes, a 2018 College of Applied Sciences and Technology Hall of Fame inductee. “I enjoy helping others, and I like being a part of a process that helps others become better and a positive contributor to society.”

She is grateful for her training at the University, where her professors challenged her to look at the perspective of community governments, local politics, and citizens, as well as inmates and the many dynamics that play a role in how they enter the criminal justice system. She remembers Professor Thomas Ellsworth always taking time to listen to his students and challenging them with alternative viewpoints to get them to look at the system from a multitude of angles.

“At ISU, I learned how home environments, as well as societal factors, play a role in communities experiencing a high crime rate,” Barnes said. “I was challenged to recognize and appreciate different environmental factors and use that knowledge to make a positive imprint in the world.”

Barnes spent a year as a McLean County prosecutor before being hired to the public defender’s office, where she was named chief public defender in 2014. She held the distinction of being the first Black public defender in McLean County, a title she now holds as district judge.

She takes great pride in the position, but also embraces what she says in a responsibility that comes with that. “I want my life to be an example for every underprivileged child, and every young girl, that no matter how hard the climb is, it’s in you,” Barnes said.

She believes her unique background coupled with understanding others who come with their own life experiences will serve her well in many ways. She hopes to help others in a courtroom the same way her sister helped her at Wright Hall.

Matt Johanson ’89
Senior vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Discover Financial Services

Matt Johnson sitting in a chair
Matt Johanson

Matt Johanson ’89 picked Illinois State because of a brochure. Growing up in a smaller town where pursuing secondary education wasn’t necessarily pushed, Johanson wanted to be a math teacher and knew he’d have to get a degree to go that route. Little did he know the school on that brochure would push him toward a different path.

When he arrived at the University, the computer program was in its infant stages. He took one programming class and was hooked. There he learned what recent graduates were working on and was taught that digitization would potentially change the commerce world as we know it. Boy, was he on to something.

Not only did Johanson get his degree in applied computer science, which launched him into a long and successful career, but securing that diploma made him the first person in his family to graduate college. Now thanks to the ladders he’s climbed and the reputation he’s established, he’s helping others find their own opportunities that may have once seemed out of reach.

Johanson has been with Discover Financial Services for 25 years. He is the company’s senior vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He helped spearhead a movement to open in June an office in Chicago’s underrepresented neighborhood of Chatham. As of late August, the Chatham Customer Care Center already had more than 100 employees, with 75 percent living within five miles of the facility. The eventual goal is to expand that number to 1,000 workers from underrepresented communities.

“It’s been the honor of a career to work on something like this,” Johanson said. “We’ve worked to set goals to have more diverse representation, more women; and for inclusion, we want people to hold their uniqueness and their sense of belonging. We want to be up on stage and say that with all of our performances, there is no identity group with despaired treatment.”

Johanson and his wife, Sue, have shown a commitment to that with their Matt and Sue Johanson Diversity in Technology Fund, which included in 2018 a $100,000 gift to go toward scholarships.

“Equity is giving each what they need to succeed, and in technology, the gap is staggering with women and people of color,” Johanson said. “Being able to create an endowment that focused on equity was a way to contribute to the greater good.”

Johanson is a proud Redbird and was excited at the opportunity to give back. He believes he received invaluable training that became his foundation for success in a career with jobs that have included operations, marketing, sales, risks, technology, and human resources.

“By the time I got into the real world, I felt I was twice as prepared as my peers coming into the company for the first time because of the applied nature of the curriculum and the professors at ISU who had real life experiences,” he said.

Thank goodness for that brochure. 

Jeff Williams ’07
Project engineer for BLHI

Jeff Williams standing with his wife and two kids in front of a mountain range.
Jeff Williams

When Jeff Williams ’07 joined the Air Force out of high school, he didn’t realize yet where life would take him. He admits his goals were undefined, as was a path that would lead him to his full potential. But after four years serving the nation, Williams gained clarity of the world around him.

With missions to Kuwait and Pakistan during his military tenure, Williams saw first-hand the benefits of what happens when people of different backgrounds pull together. “I was able to learn so much about people and how—despite our differences—we can all work for something bigger than ourselves,” Williams said.

Thanks to his military service and the hands-on experience he received as a construction management major at Illinois State University, Williams has taken that truth to heart and is channeling it for a career.

Williams attended the University following his time in the Air Force and is now working as a project engineer for BLHI. The company builds signs of diplomacy across the world. He’s helped construct U.S. embassy buildings in Mexico, Guatemala, and now Namibia.

One of the unique things about Williams’ company is that it rarely hires subcontractors. It relies on the local market for carpenters, plumbers, electricians, laborers, accountants, drafters, quality control, and document control workers.

Williams loves the benefit that can provide from a cultural standpoint, like the feeling he experienced in the Air Force. The locals might have had limited exposure to people from the U.S., while Williams’ fellow Americans may not have as much expertise on the resources or materials in the area. They come together to build what Williams describes as world class facilities.

“At the end of the job, we will all learn something from one another and be better off for it,” Williams said. “To me it’s the best part of the job, learning from one another.”

The work requires he live overseas for years at a time, a task he gladly welcomes. Williams’ wife grew up in Kenya and when they started a family, they thought having their children exposed to different cultures and countries would be optimal.

After a stint working as a project scheduler for a chemical plant in North Dakota, Williams started his life abroad. While the coronavirus (COVID-19) has made project timelines unpredictable and fluid, he is usually at a place for up to four years at a time, staying from ground-break to move-in.

Williams, who was involved with the Construction Management Student Association and Mechanical Student Association as an undergraduate, is forever grateful to the classes and instructors at Illinois State for helping him find his path that has covered a plenty of latitude and longitude.

“I think the thing that shaped me the most at ISU is the realization of how vast the opportunities are in the construction industry,” said Williams, who also went on Alternative Spring Breaks. “Along with types of construction, I learned you could work all over the world too.”

And all over the world he went.