CTU Alumna Darcie Johnson Finds Her Path

CTU Alum Darcie JohnsonThere are people in the world who know what they want to do as soon as they can talk. People who pursue their dreams with relentless focus, choosing, say, to take the after-school LEGO-building class in second grade so that they are one step closer to the engineering program in college. People whose parents or mentors offer sage guidance along the way, helping to ensure the child’s eventual professional success much the same way a gardener coaxes life out of soil.

At least we’ve all heard of such people.

Whether those situations really exist or simply emerge from the telling and retelling of a successful person’s life story remains up for debate. For most of us, navigating the choppy waters of high school and college can be confusing as we search out the safe harbor of a career we love. But as Darcie Johnson’s experience proves, that period of trial and error can lead to the sort of introspection that sires great careers.

Finding Her Path

In a way, Johnson did find her calling early on, although she didn’t know it. “I took my first accounting class in my sophomore year of high school,” she says, “and found that it was something I was good at and enjoyed.” She went on to intern in the accounting department of a local company during her senior year and the summer before college but declined the company’s offer of a full-time position. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and Johnson had decided to pursue business administration. Accounting was fun, after all, and it was sort of like business, so it seemed like a natural next step.

Except that it wasn’t. After one semester of courses in business administration at Southeast Technical Institute, Johnson knew it was wrong for her. She met with a counselor and, after an insightful conversation, switched her major to accounting. Johnson, after all, is a problem-solver. Unlike many young college kids, she didn’t wait to fail out of a major or push through coursework she didn’t like just because she was afraid of changing. This raw, innate quality of hers was something that would go on to shape her future in meaningful and positive ways.

Grit and Determination

After completing her two-year degree, Johnson was ready to pursue her four-year degree and found Colorado Technical University to be an ideal match. She was able to delve into the subject matter that she loved, having taken care of much of her general-education requirements at STI. As a result, Johnson immersed herself in accounting, IT and business courses as she mastered the skills that would define her career. And though her parents helped, Johnson had to essentially support herself during her college years. “I worked at least a full-time job, and sometimes a part-time job as well, through my four years of schooling,” Johnson recalls. “My last two years at CTU was 24 full months to make sure I graduated on time.” Looking back, it was a tall order. But Johnson’s drive and ambition saw her through: She graduated cum laude with a BS in accounting from the Sioux Falls campus in June 2002.

Ready to Fly

Johnson worked hard to earn her degree, and it paid off. Just six months after getting married, she took a position as a staff accountant at Luverne Truck Equipment. It was a serendipitous moment. The company had just created the position, Johnson had just started looking and the match was made in number-crunching heaven. “I originally thought I would have to go into tax accounting or bookkeeping,” Johnson says. “I have since found out that I enjoy accounting for manufacturing companies.”

And she’s good at it. Over the next 10-and-a-half years, Johnson handled all aspects of accounting to support business and the controller. As a result, she developed a niche for herself. Working in a small town within the even smaller category of manufacturing accounting translated to two equally important realities. One, Johnson’s skill set is a valuable thing for manufacturing companies, and two, if she wanted to make a career move, she’d have to leave a place and a job she loved. “I was secure and happy at Luverne Truck Equipment,” Johnson says, but there was nowhere for her to grow. Her boss, the controller, had been there for 35 years and showed no desire to leave.

But that same drive and problem-solving nature that helped Johnson decide on a career once again emerged as she sought to grow professionally. A headhunter who’d contacted her on and off for five years called one day with an interesting offer. Where previous jobs had been located out of town or been ill-suited to Johnson’s interests, this opportunity at Midwest Fire was local and with new owners. For the first time in 11 years, Johnson sent out her résumé – the same one she’d used to apply for her job at Luverne Truck Equipment – and the stars aligned.

On a Clear Path

In September 2013, Johnson was hired as Midwest Fire’s new Vice President of Accounting and Business Manager. “I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario or opportunity,” Johnson enthuses, and her employer feels much the same. Midwest Fire gets a highly trained and experienced employee; Johnson gets a chance to grow professionally. In addition to accounting, she is now responsible for new duties like human resources and IT, fields that require the same pluck and verve that she’s honed over the years. When she doesn’t know something, she either figures it out or asks someone – even her previous boss – for help.

As Johnson settles in to her new role and prepares to make her final payment on her student loans, her eyes are fixed firmly on the future. Pursuing an MBA, she says, has been on her mind lately since those skills would directly benefit her current position.

Whatever Johnson decides to do next, she does have the benefit of that hindsight so many others use to create a sense of destiny over their lives. Except in Johnson’s case, she prefers a more practical approach. “Choose a career you enjoy, because you will be doing it a long time,” she councils young students. “And don’t be afraid of change. Things are changing rapidly, and you need to be able to roll with the punches.”

Image credit: Portraits by Michele