George Mason University

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Katherine G. Johnson Hall will be a beacon for Mason students

June 19, 2019   /   by John Hollis

Katherine G. Johnson overcame institutional racism and sexism to help put the first men on the moon and carve a path for women and people of color in science and space exploration. Now students at George Mason University will know her story every time they step onto the Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Virginia.

Mason on Wednesday named its largest building at SciTech, formerly Bull Run Hall, Katherine G. Johnson Hall, after the trailblazing NASA mathematician whose story captivated millions in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures.”

Johnson, 100, was unable to attend, but family members including her daughters Katherine Moore and Joylette Hylick and grandson Troy Hylick attended on her behalf, joined by roughly 200 friends, university officials and guests in the Verizon Auditorium at Colgan Hall. A chorus of Mason students and alumni led by Lisa Billingham, professor of choral music education, opened and closed the program and generated enthusiastic applause from the audience. 

Kevin Clark, a professor in the division of learning technologies and the director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity within the College of Education and Human Development, was among the program speakers and said the newly renamed building would serve as a “constant reminder of the intelligence, intensity, patriotism and dedication of Mrs. Katherine Johnson.”

Mason President Ángel Cabrera said Johnson’s story is a good fit with Mason’s mission to provide higher education access to previously underserved groups.

“I hope that the family of Katherine Johnson sees and appreciates this is an institution dedicated to making sure that any person of color gets access to excellence, access to opportunity,” he said.

Clark, whose research focuses on attracting more women and people of color overall to STEM disciplines and careers, spoke more of the visceral impact upon impressionable young people of seeing someone successful in the STEM field who looks like them.

“Seeing is believing,” he said.

Cabrera announced an additional honor for Johnson on behalf of the state of Virginia, which formally decreed Wednesday to be “Katherine G. Johnson Day” throughout the commonwealth.

Johnson worked at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for 33 years, performing complex calculations and flight path analysis for U.S. spacecraft in the early years of the space program, including for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969. She worked on the space shuttle program before retiring from NASA in 1986. NASA facilities have been named in Johnson’s honor, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

“The impact that she made on the space program is immeasurable, and it is fitting that this building, which houses science and technology programs, should bear her name,” said Julian Williams, Mason’s vice president for compliance, diversity and ethics.

Attracting more women of color to STEM degree programs is a priority across U.S. higher education, including at Mason, which produces more graduates in computer-related fields than any university in Virginia.

Kelly Knight, an assistant professor with Mason’s Forensic Science Program within the College of Science and the college’s STEM outreach coordinator, also spoke, and brought a group of her Females of Color Underrepresented in STEM (FOCUS) campers with her. One of those high school students, Olena Bromell, read an excerpt from “Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson.”

The building’s naming means that inspiring the many coming behind her could ultimately be Johnson’s greatest legacy, Knight said.

“This is a reminder to young people of color,” Knight said. “We, too, deserve to have a seat at the STEM table.”