The Power of Saying Yes to Education
Abbey Johnson, MNA '18, is working to make an impact at work and in schools across the country.
Abbey Johnson has been an advocate for education for as long as she can remember. She originally dreamt of becoming a high school history teacher, but decided that she could affect change on a grander scale if she pursued a career in nonprofit management.
And that’s just what she’s done through her work with Say Yes to Education. “Say Yes” is an organization that partners with cities and counties to transform civic infrastructure so that every public school student has the opportunity to earn a college degree.
Just three short years after completing her undergraduate degree at High Point University, Johnson has worked her way up from office manager to the Director of Human Capital Development for Say Yes. She also oversees the Office of the CEO/President.
Hers has been a rapid ascent propelled by hard work, a desire to never stop learning, and her experiences in Notre Dame’s Executive Master of Nonprofit Administration (EMNA) program.
Women supporting women in the EMNA program
“During my first summer at Notre Dame, Roxanne Spillett, one of our professors, held a lunch for all the women in the program,” Johnson recalls. “We had the opportunity to come together and hear her amazing personal and professional story. She was very open and honest with us about her experiences. She had served as CEO of Boys and Girls Club of America, so hearing her story, and everyone around the table being able to share their stories, was insightful and empowering. It was a great opportunity to connect to other women in the cohort.”
Johnson still remembers Spillett’s call for the importance of women supporting one another professionally. “She said, ‘We’re in this together, we support one another and, even though we might have different experiences, at the end of the day we can still relate and be there for one another.’”
We’re in this together, we support one another and, even though we might have different experiences, at the end of the day we can still relate and be there for one another.Roxanne Spillett, Notre Dame adjunct assistant teaching professor
The power of the cohort
The closeness Johnson felt among members of her cohort during that early luncheon continued throughout her two years in the program. “I really didn’t think about the cohort experience ahead of time but that ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the program,” Johnson notes. “Being around such diverse, passionate and dedicated people was really inspiring. You really just feed off one another.”
During her capstone field project—in which she built the Human Capital Development Department for Say Yes to Education from scratch—Johnson leaned on members of her cohort and also Dr. Angela Logan, an associate professor and St. Andre Bessette Director of Nonprofit Professional Development at Notre Dame.
“Having other people to bounce ideas off of was extremely helpful,” Johnson says. “I was presenting my plan for the HR department to our senior management team and to different working groups at Say Yes while taking a leadership development class. That’s how the whole program went: it didn’t feel like I was working on this extra project because it was so embedded in my everyday work.”
Johnson reports that the department she built while a student in the EMNA program is flourishing. “It’s gone really well. Lots of people seem positive about our company culture, and we’ve increased internal communication.”
Staying connected—and turning toward the future
Johnson completed her coursework for the EMNA degree in December 2018—and she will walk in graduation in May 2019. Her long-term career goals include serving as a CEO or director of a nonprofit educational organization. “This program helped me feel very confident that I can one day achieve my goals.”
She also plans to stay in touch with many members of her cohort—and make new connections with Notre Dame alumni in New York. It shouldn’t be hard—she currently serves as Secretary of the Notre Dame Club of New York City.
“This is a network of people that I can lean on and utilize as a resource,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of pride and joy when you’re wearing a Notre Dame shirt and everyone’s saying ‘Go Irish.’ It’s a very welcoming network.”