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Chico State

Passion Leads Chico Native to Find Path in Computer Science

Student Olicia Johnson smiles as she looks away from the camera while she's wearing a blue blouse in front of a beige studio background.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the accomplishments and stories behind 2024’s Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipients. The award—one of the largest and most prestigious at Chico State—celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic, and professional accomplishments.

Olivia Johnson is the epitome of a hard-working and determined individual. 

She started a babysitting and yard work business when she was just a pre-teen. Since then, she has worked at accounting firms, interned at the global technology company Oracle last summer, and is now an academic advising intern and standout computer science junior in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management. 

Johnson’s professors describe her as a bright student and top performer in the department, with an impressive ability to break down complex problems and apply her knowledge in the real world. Outside of the classroom, she has been a volunteer with Girls on the Run for 10 years, has spoken at conferences and high schools to inspire girls to pursue their dreams, and has volunteered as a tutor for fellow computer science students. 

Johnson originally planned to study mechanical engineering at another university, she said. But she fell in love with coding while attending Butte College. Knowing that California State University, Chico had a strong computer science program, Johnson, a former drum major for Pleasant Valley High School marching band, decided to transfer to Chico State to stay in her hometown. 

“This was an amazing path to take,” she said. “I love math, which is what led me to engineering, however, I felt that it wasn’t right for me. I tried programming and absolutely loved it, and I’ve just been loving all my classes ever since. I have finally found my path, which is cool, and the support here has been amazing to help me find more confidence in that path.” 

Why did you choose Chico State? 

I chose Chico State because of the computer science department’s reputation for producing successful alumni. I heard that people who graduate from here end up with good jobs and they contribute to society in some pretty cool ways. I’m also from Chico, and I love living here. I find a lot of value in living in a small town and feeling the support of your community. I like being able to support other people and having other people support me. You go to the grocery store and you see someone you know—I just really love that small town experience.  

What does this scholarship mean to you and what will it allow you to accomplish?  

I’m really honored to have been selected for this scholarship. And I’m very grateful to my professors, Dr. (Jaime) Raigoza, Dr. (R. Carter) Tillquist, and Professor Brian Herring, who nominated me for the scholarship, as well as all the professors that I’ve had here at Chico State. They’ve all been very supportive. All the professors really care about the students … I think that makes a big difference in my education. To me, the scholarship means that my professors believe in my abilities, and they see my hard work, and that reaffirms that my hard work matters and I’m on the right path.  

What it has allowed me to do is work fewer hours, and that’s allowed me to focus more on my schoolwork and spend more time diving into my classes.

What opportunities to gain hands-on working experience have you been exposed to during your time at Chico State?   

The top three opportunities I’ve had to gain hands-on experience during my time at Chico State are a software development internship at Oracle, a lab assistant position on campus, and my new position as an academic advising intern. Professor Herring, who was one of my first professors here at Chico State, wrote me a letter of recommendation that helped me get the internship. I learned a lot there over the summer. The second position was (fall) semester. I was a lab assistant working with the lower level coding classes, helping them with their labs, answering questions, and had to be able to explain complex concepts, which helped me with my communication skills. This semester, I am working as an academic advising intern at the ECC Student Success Center. I’m really excited about this opportunity because I think it’s fun to help fellow students find their path the way I found mine. The ECC Student Success Center is a wonderful resource and I’m honored to be a part of their team.

How have faculty or mentors helped you navigate these opportunities and what are you taking away from them? 

The faculty in my department have helped me navigate these opportunities in many different ways. This includes, of course, the three professors who nominated me for this scholarship. In addition to their support, I’ve had multiple professors write letters of recommendation and encourage me to pursue many types of opportunities. The ECC Student Success Center has also been a valuable resource for me as well in a few different ways. I was able to meet with Art Cox, the director of the ECC Student Success Center and career counselor, to enhance my resume as I apply for my next internship. His dedicated time and effort in helping me reflects his genuine care and commitment to student success. The chair of the computer science department, Tyson Henry, has also been a wonderful and supportive resource. Dr. Henry knows the ins and outs of finding the right path to graduation for each student. He takes your needs into consideration and helps you find the right combination of classes that play into each student’s strengths.  

All the professors I’ve had here at Chico State, both in the computer science department and in other departments, have made me feel valued as a student and have shown that they care about my education. My biggest takeaway from these experiences is the value of connection. This is important for a few different reasons. One reason is that when you have a personal connection with those around you, you feel more supported and motivated to work hard and succeed. You want your mentors and professors to see that you appreciate their support, effort, and time, which you show them through your hard work. Another reason is networking. When you have many people who believe in your abilities and view you as a reliable and responsible person, more opportunities tend to come your way.