An interview with Regina Johnson
1. What drove you to apply to the National Urban Fellows program?
I felt stagnant in my role and was looking for an opportunity to expand my network and shake up my trajectory. After hearing an alum, Natoya Walker Minor, speak about the critical need for public policy and programs like NUF, I decided to apply. I was sold after she shared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s poignant quote, “…this is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” That resonated with me. I later read more about McCourt’s shared commitment and vision for the program and knew it was a perfect match.
2. How did the National Urban Fellows program help prepare you to advance in your professional career?
NUF helped prepare me to be agile and strengthened my ability to adapt to change. I was narrowly focused on workforce development when I entered the program. However, my experiences through the fellowship and residency in Cleveland, Ohio, helped broaden my lens. I was able to connect issues and work to solve challenging problems. In my current role at Microsoft, I help develop programs and policies for business owners in communities across America and continue to collaborate with others to create systemic change.
3. How did your Fellow residency deepen your commitment to championing equity and social impact?
I worked in the Cuyahoga County Department of Development, doing substantive work alongside my mentor. They focused on ensuring that businesses and residents were thriving. I experienced what it was like to work with different, senior-level partners — from city government and financial institutions to nonprofits — who were passionate about coming together to resolve complex challenges. It was empowering to be at the table as we sought to create equitable economic development solutions.
4. How did your McCourt School education help strengthen your interests and challenge your thinking?
I used to work for a nonprofit, and I came to McCourt thinking that change could only occur through one avenue. A pivotal moment for me came from a debate in one of my classes. We asked ourselves whether private citizens even had a say in how change occurs. Guest speakers from private companies spoke about their policy impact, which showed me a different path forward. I took a leap, and now I’m doing programmatic policy work to create equitable and inclusive solutions that I thought weren’t possible at this level in the private sector.
5. What is the most important piece of advice you received as a Fellow?
I have several professors to thank for advising me throughout my McCourt experience. Dr. Nuku Ofori always encouraged me to be unafraid of asking questions, and my capstone advisor, Dr. Laura Blessing, gave me the confidence to not steer away from what inspires me. As a graduate student, I heard Cecilia Muñoz, now a fellow McCourt Advisory Board member, share the importance of speaking up and being seen and heard. That advice has helped me in my everyday life.
6. In your current role, what steps are you taking to support other early to mid-career professionals?
I love talking candidly to people about my experiences, and I’m an avid LinkedIn user. I have spoken on various professional panels and met with individuals across the country to discuss their aspirations and demystify processes. I always tell people to shoot their shot. Your perspective is valuable, so speak up, even if your voice shakes. I never thought I would be where I am, and I’ve realized it is exactly where I need to be.
7. What would you say to someone who is considering applying to the National Urban Fellows program?
In the words of American author, salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”