A Woman of Purpose, Pitt law student Brittany Johnson uses her energy, resourcefulness to meet career goals

Issue Date: 
February 23, 2009
Brittany JohnsonBrittany Johnson

It was a full academic scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh that drew Brittany Johnson to Pitt in 2002. At the time, she concedes, she was nervous about her choice, but Johnson has traveled quite a path since that day years ago when she moved into the Towers.

Johnson graduated in 2006 from Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in communication and political science—and she now is working on a Juris Doctor degree in Pitt’s School of Law and a master’s degree in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). A joint-degree student, she will graduate in May 2010.

“I love Pitt,” says Johnson. “I’ve met some great people here.”

She filled her undergraduate years with solid academics, service and social activities, and a healthy dose of watching the Pitt men’s and women’s basketball teams. Her busy schedule has continued into her graduate-school years. Along with working part-time at the Veterans Administration hospital in Oakland, Johnson has landed a law-related internship each summer, and she continues to work diligently toward fulfilling her dream of launching a nonprofit organization that mentors young women.

Clearly, Johnson’s experiences at Pitt have helped her develop into a woman of purpose.

Johnson credits Barbara Mowery, her undergraduate advisor, with helping her adjust to life on campus initially. As a member of  Mowery’s freshman orientation class, Johnson didn’t take long to become involved in campus life. She joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, was academic chair of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, and served as a resident assistant in the Towers.

Johnson always knew she wanted to go to law school. As an undergraduate, her preparation for her future was purposeful.

“I felt the communication degree would be an advantage because, as a lawyer, I would need to be able to express myself well, and the political science degree provides a good foundation for law,” Johnson says.

To enhance her academics, Johnson took classes in Africana Studies, as well as the History of Black Pittsburgh class taught by Pitt history professor Laurence Glasco.

“As a student, you don’t have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the city,” says Johnson.

Born in Reading, Pa., Johnson still maintains close ties with the city’s high school. Although she grew up in Southern Illinois, her family moved back to Reading when she was in the 11th grade. Johnson graduated as one of the top 10 students in her class of 568 students at Reading High School. She also played basketball for the school.

Johnson received $14,000 in scholarship funds from the high school, and she often visits the school when she returns to Reading. She has been the keynote alumni speaker at the high school’s Top Ten Dinner.

Her commitment to service is also evidenced by her part-time job as a sitter at the Oakland VA hospital, where her task can be as simple as keeping a lonely patient company.

“My grandfather and father served in the military; they (those who serve) made a way for me, for us,” she says. “I make sure to treat everyone with dignity.”

As for her decision to attend Pitt’s law school: “I took a good look at Pitt law and the quality of the education, and I was comfortable and confident that I would continue to get a good education at Pitt,” she says.

Midway through her first year of law school, Johnson decided that she wanted to do more with her education. Her law school class comprises 250 students, and she wanted to set herself apart from the others. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit and public management in GSPIA, with a focus on the administration, finance, and governance aspects of health law.

“I’ve always been a student, and I know I have a strong educational background, but because I haven’t worked much, I wanted a better foundation for my long-term goals,” says Johnson, who received scholarships from both the law school and GSPIA.

Johnson’s résumé reflects her energy and hard work. She has served as a research assistant for Pitt law professor William Luneburg. She interned for Lisa P. Lenihan, Magistrate Judge with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and with Mary Austin, cocounsel for UPMC. This summer, she will serve as an associate in the Pittsburgh office of Burns, White, and Hickton.

Johnson says she’s been lucky to have met and worked with some great women who have been willing to “show me the ropes.” She cited UPMC’s Mary Austin as one recent mentor, and says there have been many others.

“Growing up, I did have a lot of mentors,” says Johnson, who often visits schools to talk to young girls from underrepresented populations. Sometimes, her mere presence gives a message as important as any message she delivers. “When I go to a classroom, sometimes I don’t even have to say anything,” says Johnson. The unspoken message, she says, is, ‘“Look at her! She’s in law school, and she looks like me. I can do it, too!’”

Johnson says it’s important for women to serve as mentors. “It’s important to give back, and I make a commitment to do so,” she says. “You don’t get anywhere alone.”