Following in the footsteps of previous generations is a common way for students to decide on future careers.
For UT senior Dana Bjorn, a Tullahoma native, that meant getting a degree in mechanical engineering, just like her grandfather and father before her.
“I grew up with parents who were always builders and DIYers, so I naturally gravitated towards always making something, anything,” said Bjorn. “I would nail together forts out of planks of wood or build things out of duct tape or try to build pretend robots out of spare parts in the garage. My parents always supported my interest in creating things, and I was always told I could grow up to be an engineer.”
Bjorn also inherited something else from her family: A love of service to the nation.
Her grandfather was able to attend college thanks to the GI Bill following World War II, while her father attended the US Air Force Academy and became a flight test engineer for the Air Force and her mother worked in the US Navy, helping improve aircrew life support technology.
Seeing the successes they had throughout their careers inspired Bjorn to serve the nation as well, leading to her application for and selection as a prestigious US Department of Defense (DoD) Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship award winner.
The SMART award provides funding for students in exchange for a commitment for an equal number of years working as a civilian employee of the DoD. The DoD’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is sponsoring Bjorn, something that comes as both a relief to her and an inspiration to double her already impressive efforts.
“I’m so glad to have my job figured out this early in college, since I do not have the pressure to hunt for jobs, and I do not have the fear of rejection,” said Bjorn. “Now that I know I have a solid opportunity in front of me, I have a rejuvenated desire to work even harder and learn from my courses. I want to be ready for the challenges that I may be presented with, and I want the MDA to be happy with their decision of selecting me.”
Bjorn’s path to the MDA is remarkable itself.
She attended a Society of Women Engineers conference in California in 2019, where, despite misgivings about “only” being a sophomore and feeling the drain of visiting with about “a hundred companies and giving out many resumés,” Bjorn had a game-changing moment, both for her academic endeavors and future employment.
Alex Richards, representing the MDA, pointed at her and asked her to come over to talk to him.
“It was a classic ‘Who? Me?’ moment,” said Bjorn. “Normally, you get maybe a couple of minutes before you have to walk away hoping you made an impression, but we wound up talking for about 40 minutes. Finally, he said, ‘I want you to work for me. I want you to work for me through this’ and handed me information about the SMART scholarship.”
Later, Bjorn called her parents and walked them through the moment, unsure about how to process it all.
They told her she ought to at least apply for it, as it sounded like a good opportunity to them.
But that wasn’t the part that stood out the most to Bjorn.
“He had told me, ‘When I see your application on my desk, I will hire you,’” said Bjorn. “That was a pretty bold statement to say to a 19 year old, and I was pretty shocked.”
Her decision to go ahead and apply continues to pay dividends, as Bjorn noted that the SMART scholarship has allowed her school to be fully paid for, with a stipend left over, an internship set in place, and a job lined up after graduation.