How 9/11 Changed My Life

Sep 11, 2017

By ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson

16 years ago on this day, I emerged into the sunlight from the depths of the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall subway station to the middle of a crowd of people looking towards the skyline south of us. Black smoke was pouring from the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Someone beside me blurted “an airplane just flew into it.”

Over the next hour, I stood with the rest of my cohort of New York City Urban Fellows from the entrance of the Municipal Building as we watched the terror unfold. We covered our ears from the sound of blaring sirens, watched helplessly as distraught New Yorkers beside us cried and wailed about loved ones in the burning building, and ducked, eyes closed, when the second plane hit. When the first tower began to collapse with a tremendous rush of sound and smoke, we ran.

That Tuesday, I was about one week into the two-week orientation of the New York City Urban Fellows Program, a fellowship that accepts 25 recent college graduates from around the country and places them in full-time work placements in city government agencies. As a former Government major in college, I knew I was in the right place. I had an extraordinary opportunity to gain my first year of real, full-time work experience in New York City government. But I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life or what area of government I wanted to work in. Many policy areas sounded interesting to me – particularly education, economic development, housing, and social services.  But at that time, there was a field that I never considered, or was even aware of: emergency management.

A position in the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was one of the 40+ placements on offer to us Urban Fellows that year. Reading the huge manual of opportunities presented to us our first day of orientation, I glossed right over the OEM placement, which involved citywide coordination of resources for emergencies like hurricanes, large-scale fires, major power outages, and yes, terrorism events.

9/11 changed my life forever because it opened my eyes to this corner of city government that provides critical emergency preparedness, response and recovery support for 8 million people, often unnoticed. The position at OEM became my top choice of positions, and I was blessed to be one of the three Urban Fellows selected to work at OEM starting at the end of that September.

My year at OEM as a New York City Urban Fellow was humbling. I was assigned to work as OEM’s representative in the downtown Disaster Assistance Center, which was a makeshift relief center for government and non-profit relief organizations providing services for people who had lost homes, jobs or childcare. I learned from first-hand experience how to create efficiencies, navigate city regulatory processes, manage bomb scares, and even provide appropriate emotional support to colleagues who faced burn-out. I also learned a lot about myself, and my capacity to serve in the face of uncertainty, and even fear.

I couldn’t have had this experience without the opportunities presented by my fellowship. Just applying for the competitive fellowship in itself was a lesson in the power of storytelling, strategic preparation and confidence. In my articles on fellowship tips, I talk a lot about how to tell your story, how to make yourself stand out and be unforgettable, and why you should not let the competition ruffle you or make you doubt yourself. I know that ordinary people can win extraordinary opportunities with the right preparation and personal resolve.

What I haven’t spoken much about is how fellowships are truly life-changing, in ways that you won’t realize until you are in the fellowship. Had I not been in New York City on 9/11, I would never have considered a career in emergency management and public health. From 2001, I worked at the intersection of these two fields, first in operations, then in public policy, for the next 15 years. I earned a Master of Science in Public Health and a PhD in Emergency Management. I became Policy Director of the National Commission on Children and Disasters at the age of 30. I credit my accelerated career rise to the unique opportunities I gained through three professional fellowships I pursued in New York City, Germany and Washington, DC respectively.

9/11 changed my life in other ways too. Despite being a Government major in college, I was incredibly naïve to the external and internal threats to our security and freedom, threats that still exist now. This experience strengthened my commitment to a career in social impact and public service.

The reason I am dedicated now to helping others find and win fellowships is because almost all fellowships support people committed to social impact, whether you are a scientist studying climate change, a professional making a career change to teaching, an advocate working in a non-profit organization dedicated to social justice causes, or a graduate student spearheading cutting-edge research. My hope is that on days like the anniversary of 9/11, we feel compelled to think about our role in this world, and what we can contribute to make the world a more peaceful, clean and collaborative place to live. From there, we can strive for opportunities to make those dreams happen.

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2017, all rights reserved.