Northern Michigan University senior Alexandra Johnson might be described as a serial commencement speaker. She earned the honor in 8th and 12th grades in her hometown of Antioch, Ill. For her high school graduation, which shifted online because of the pandemic, Johnson had to record the speech in her basement—dressed in cap and gown—for a YouTube video. She recently auditioned successfully for what she considers a “do-over,” as student speaker for NMU's May 6 ceremony. Johnson will also receive a bachelor's degree in computer science with a minor in mathematics.
“It feels special to be the graduating student who gets to say goodbye to everyone before they leave—possibly forever,” Johnson said. “The theme of my speech is being the author of your own life. You get to write your future, so you can write it however you want. I have started, edited and rewritten my own life a bunch of times. But one thing I mention in the speech is that it can change as often as you want it to.”
Johnson recalls her introduction to Northern. She was asked by a hometown friend to tag along on a campus visit and said yes, in part because the prospect of missing a day of high school seemed appealing. Johnson ended up “falling in love” with Northern and the Marquette community and applied for admission. Ironically, her friend chose to go elsewhere, but Johnson said NMU proved to be the perfect fit.
“The reason I chose Northern is that it is super-welcoming,” she said. “It felt like people I never met genuinely wanted me to be here. People you see on campus or in the community pass by and say hi and freely talk to you. I'm not sure if that's an Upper Peninsula thing, but it sure makes you feel like you belong here.”
Johnson had not settled on an academic major and assumed she would enter college with “undeclared” status. But on a family vacation, her uncle was talking about his job as a software engineer and she found it very intriguing. She took a computer science class her senior year of high school and enjoyed “creating something from nothing by typing code.”
She selected computer science as her major upon entering NMU and had no reason to change it. In fact, thanks to 28 credits accumulated through Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school, she managed to graduate in only three years.”
Despite the accelerated rate, Johnson packed in a variety of experiences. She completed an internship last summer with CDW based in Vernon Hills, Ill., about a half hour from Antioch. The company hired her for a fully remote position after graduation. She also participated in house and hall government as part of NMU residence life, was involved in the ASNMU student government organization for a semester, served as president of the Panhellenic Council and was vice president of the Greek Council.
When asked about faculty mentors who made an impact, Johnson was quick to credit NMU computer science professor Randy Appleton.
“I've been his TA [teaching assistant] this semester. He often puts school aside to ask students if we're doing okay personally and psychologically. Many professors don't ask such things, not because they don't care, but because they deal with so many students on a daily basis. But he makes a point to check in. The fact he first asked me to be a TA my second year in college also showed he believes in me. It's been encouraging to see more young women in computer science classes. They're breaking the stereotype of it being a male-dominated profession.”
As NMU's student commencement speaker, who will stand before hundreds of graduates and their families in a couple of weeks, Johnson said she is also breaking the stereotype some have about computer science students being introverted and preferring isolation or small-group activities.
She is the daughter of Michelle Johnson and Jason Johnson of Antioch. NMU's May 6 commencement will begin at 10:30 a.m. EST in the Superior Dome. It will be streamed online at www.nmu.edu/commencement and broadcast regionally on WNMU-TV13.