PASSION FOR PEOPLE AND TECHNOLOGY BECOMES LIFELONG MISSION
As a child, Maritza Johnson ’05 (BA) must have been driven past the University of San Diego “a million times.” With her parents working at a car dealership off of Interstate Highway 8 in Mission Valley, Johnson’s daily car trips took her right past the campus.
When it came time for college, Johnson — who was born and raised in San Diego — applied to two schools: University of California, San Diego and USD. Coming to campus for the first time as a prospective student, Johnson stopped by the mathematics department to speak with a professor.
“It felt so much like a collegiate movie,” she says, remembering the warm atmosphere and the professor’s willingness to talk with her.
Starting her undergraduate education at USD, Johnson enrolled in 17 units and was determined to pursue a mathematics degree. However, it was an introductory computer science course that first semester which piqued her interest.
“I had a lab credit for Intro to Programming,” she recalls. “Seeing a programming language for the first time can be a totally foreign experience.”
But Johnson is quick to admit that it didn’t all click right away. “I failed the midterm,” she says, laughing. “Then I took the final and my professor emailed me afterwards and said, ‘You got the highest grade on the final.’ She kind of took me by the shoulders and said, ‘I think you should major in computer science and, if you agree, I’ll be your advisor.’ From there, everything fell into place.”
After finishing a PhD program at Columbia University, Johnson’s path led her to Google, Facebook, and then back to her undergraduate alma mater. In Fall 2017, Johnson relocated to her hometown and began teaching in the USD Computer Science department. One class turned into three and Johnson was determined to be there for her students, just as she had been supported by her faculty mentors.
“I always wanted to be a professor like my professors at USD were — warm, welcoming, supportive and there for you. And I told all of my students for all three of my classes, ‘I want to know all of you. I have office hours and I’m going to be sitting there anyway. If my door is open, come by and say hello,’” Johnson recalls.
“After the first software engineering lecture, a student came by and she said, ‘thanks for being the first female professor I’ve had in computer science.’ This was the fall semester of her senior year and all her professors in computer science had been men. It was a really quick reminder that first week of how important it is to be there and show up.”
In Spring 2021, it was announced that Johnson would be founding a new center for data, artificial intelligence and society led by the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. Named the Center for Digital Civil Society, Johnson is excited to position the center as a place to bring together stakeholders in the technology industry.
“We are at an inflection point,” she says, noting that technological advances need to be civic in nature — focused on the whole of society having a say in what comes next.
While the center takes shape on the USD campus, Johnson continues to make a name for herself as an expert in the field. In September 2021, she was asked to join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine Forum on Cyber Resilience. One of roughly 20 cybersecurity experts from around the nation, Johnson will serve as an advisor to governmental agencies related to technological innovations. For her, this opportunity will enable her to continue a path towards ensuring that technology is equitable, accessible and representative for end users.
As Johnson looks ahead, her belief in “a new social contract” that was fostered during her Changemaker education at USD is sure to inspire the next steps in her career trajectory. — Allyson Meyer