Alumni Spotlight: Tallese Johnson (written by Beverly Pratt)

As we begin our first semester of the Alumni Speaker Series – which will commence with Phil Cohen on April 30 – it is appropriate to also highlight department alumni within our newsletter.  How else can we pick their brains on graduate student advice, post-graduate life (is there one?), and their perspectives on intellectual maturation and the sociological imagination?  While the next newsletter edition will spotlight Dr. Phil Cohen, this edition spotlights Dr. Tallese Johnson.

The summer of 2008 – a few months before my first semester at UMD – I had the privilege of interning at the U.S. Census Bureau and met many current and former UMD sociology students.  One of the alumni I met was Tallese Johnson, as she was that summer’s intern coordinator within the Bureau’s Demographic Directorate.  Once she discovered that I was new to UMD, Tallese immediately took me out for a Suitland, MD lunch and provided me with oodles of advice and guidance.  Since that summer, I have been lucky enough to encounter Tallese in other settings, including another summer at the Bureau and ASA sessions and receptions.
This past weekend, Tallese and I were able to talk about her time at Maryland, her experiences post-PhD, and her perspectives on intellectual maturation and the sociological imagination.  What follows are major themes from our discussion.  Enjoy!
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Tallese began her Maryland tenure in 1993, finished her Master’s degree in 1996, and completed her PhD in 2000.  She came directly from Berea College – a small liberal arts school in Kentucky – where she completed her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a minor in Political Science.

Having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, Tallese was and is significantly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and was intellectually stimulated by political sociology, specifically public policy, beginning in high school.  While a student at Berea, Tallese “fell in love with Sociology” and began studying social stratification focusing on the experiences of welfare mothers.  Her experience at Berea College, a college which charges no tuition and only educates students from working class backgrounds, also influenced her overall decision to continue her studies in social stratification   As she began her graduate school search, our department’s Social Stratification specialty area caught her attention, specifically how the area’s work impacted racial minority communities.

Once Tallese arrived at UMD, her specialty areas became Social Stratification and Gender, Work, and Family (GWF).  She decided to specialize in GWF – in addition to Social Stratification – because of her long-term interest in welfare reform and poverty.  Tallese worked with Bart Landry for her Master’s degree and then worked with Reeve Vanneman and Bonnie Thornton Dill for her dissertation.  Her Master’s thesis looked at earning differentials between Black and White women using U.S. Census data from 1980 to 1990.  Her dissertation was an analysis of job quality and welfare recidivism.  While Tallese focused on welfare reform and poverty, she did not study public policy as much as she initially expected.  However, her interests were satiated indirectly through these specialty areas – welfare reform through GWF and poverty through Social Stratification.

After graduation, Tallese pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Carolina Population Center.  This provided time for Tallese to continue her dissertation agenda and to understand policy from a different angle; essentially she had more time to contemplate work and academia.  While at UNC, Tallese worked with Kathleen Harris, a sociologist whose work is very influential within welfare reform.

Tallese highly recommends a postdoc, as it is a great boosting point particularly for students pursuing academic careers.  Though she doesn’t work within academia, Tallese benefited greatly from it; she had more time to sharpen her research and writing skills.  Though the UNC postdoc was very much an academic pillar – not geared toward government and applied settings – she found the experience rewarding.  Specifically, she trained as a demographer at UNC, something that she did not do at UMD; therefore, she was able to understand different methodological approaches to the study of sociology.

Once she completed her postdoc at UNC in 2002, she returned to UMD as a research associate at the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity and as a lecturer in the Sociology department.  In 2004, Tallese began working as a Statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.  As of this year, she is a Statistician in the Racial Statistics Branch.  Her duties as a statistician include leading research projects to review, analyze and evaluate Census survey data.

Why did Tallese choose a career at the U.S. Census as opposed to academia?  The decision was part of the long intellectual maturation process within and around graduate school.  She first entered graduate school with the sole intention of becoming a professor.  While she enjoyed teaching and student interaction, public policy continuously pulled her heartstrings.  Additionally, she questioned whether or not academia’s lifestyle was for her.  Within her last two years of graduate school, Tallese made the decision to pursue an applied career, a decision that threw her for a loop.  Tallese, however, credits her advisors – Reeve Vanneman and Bonnie Thornton Dill  – for being very supportive.  Even though she knew that most of her advisors’ contacts were academicians, she found them to remain extremely helpful and encouraging, as they were keenly aware of her initial interests in research and public policy.  Even though she chose a career outside of academia, Tallese continues to love working with students and encouraging them to pursue their goals.

Though she has not used the term “sociological imagination” since graduate school, her own sociological imagination remains a daily influence – especially in how she approaches her work.  She locates her work of producing quality data about the nation’s people and economy as integral to the work of researchers, academicians, public policy makers, and community activists who use the data to impact social change.  Census data are used to make community-planning decisions about what services are needed in communities based on its population, such as elder care services, new roads or schools. Census data is also used to determine the amount of federal funds allocated to  communities for public health, education, and transportation.  Finally, Census data is used by academicians, researchers and policy makers to carry out research that informs public policy.  Tallese is very aware of the varied uses of Census data and how they impact larger social change, and is guided by the mission statement of the U.S. Census Bureau to produce quality data.

For Tallese, intellectual maturation stems from sociological studies and professional experiences.   She is aware of how much she matured between graduate school, through her postdoc, and up until now.  The whole experience of graduate school is part of this process including studies, comprehensive exams, theses, teaching, research assistantships, etc.  Her maturation didn’t just occur in classroom settings; it also happened as she had internships and experienced other life events. Since Tallese went directly from undergrad to grad school, she didn’t have a lot of work experience.  Because of this she participated in – and highly promotes taking – internships in order to be exposed to varied research settings including government, nonprofit, and think tank organizations.  Doing so exposes students to different areas of the discipline – from applied settings to academic settings – which each contribute to the intellectual maturation of the student.  (During graduate school Tallese had an internship at the National Center for Health Statistics, and a predoctoral fellowship at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.)  That said, Tallese is a huge proponent of any training and exposure graduate students can receive to diversify their portfolio and to deepen their intellectual maturation process.  Exposure is key within the intellectual maturation process.

As we closed the conversation, Tallese’s parting words of advice were as follows:  “Take ownership of your interests.  And don’t be afraid to map your own path.  All of us have different paths.  And, at the end of the day, it is your career.”

Much thanks to Tallese for her time and her wisdom!  You can contact Tallese at tallese.d.johnson@census.gov.

Beverly Pratt is a second year PhD student.

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