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Johnson Connects Leadership Across Multiple Pursuits

Brayden Johnson alongside his wife, Janette

Brayden Johnson, a senior double-majoring in psychology and law and society, was initially drawn to Purdue for its successful Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) program and the leadership opportunities it affords to those preparing for officer positions. In May 2024, Johnson will graduate after serving as the cadet wing commander of AFROTC Purdue University – Detachment 220, having undertaken a journey to build leadership skills in numerous endeavors across campus.

Johnson’s first attempt to obtain a leadership position in AFROTC didn’t go as planned. As a sophomore, he had hoped to obtain a position as a General Military Course Advisor (GMCA), which serves as the leader of all underclassmen in the program. Though he was unsuccessful in his pursuit of that position, another opportunity to gain leadership experience presented itself through Purdue Student Government (PSG). Johnson applied for and obtained a director position in government affairs – which began to build his network on campus and expand his knowledge of what the university had to offer.

“I met a lot of students and people who were able to mentor me and really teach me what opportunities were available on campus in different realms,” Johnson says. 

Johnson’s role with PSG evolved. After serving as an executive director, he was named the elections director, where he oversaw the 2022-23 PSG election – which featured the highest total vote count since 2015. He remained in PSG during 2022-23 and served as the deputy chief of staff, which oversees the PSG Board of Directors.

Brayden JohnsonAfter coming to West Lafayette from a small high school in Oak Hill, Indiana, PSG offered Johnson his first opportunity to make connections and lead in a large environment. He cites the peer mentorship he received from and the friendship he developed with organization leaders as having a strong influence on his experience.

“They took a really big part in showing me the opportunities that were available,” Johnson says of his peers. “We would talk about leadership and management styles and making sure all of our people were taken care of. As I moved up in the organization that got better and better, and I was able to apply that to ROTC in a way that we didn’t have beforehand.”

Stepping out of the AFROTC community in his role in PSG also allowed Johnson to work with different populations of students and begin to translate what he learned to AFROTC.  

“ROTC is a very insular community,” Johnson explains. “There’s only a couple hundred of us across all branches on a large campus and being able to bring outside resources that I received from PSG was a huge help. Working with non-ROTC people made me a better leader in the ROTC environment because I wasn’t so limited in my experience. In ROTC, we are all so similar immediately. There’s a certain type of person that joins the military and goes to college, and who will do both of those things at the same time. It can be hard to step outside that community and work with people who aren’t like that. PSG gave me that experience.”

One of the projects Johnson is most proud of during his time with PSG also turned out to be one of his toughest tests. Johnson led the planning of a mental health resource fair for students, uniting resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Purdue University Student Health Center (PUSH) and other organizations with stress-busting activities on Memorial Mall. When a tragic event struck the campus community the night before the event, Johnson had a tough call to make – proceed with the fair or cancel the event. Along with his team, Johnson decided to go forward with the event, which turned out to be just what the campus community needed at that moment.

“It was my call whether we were going to continue doing the event and then risk whatever consequences come from that,” Johnson says. “I decided that if there was any day an event like that would be needed, it would be that day -and we got a welcome response from students that were walking by that it was what they needed that day. We connected so many people with care, we heard from parents who were coming by and it made me realize how big of an impact students can have. We were making a difference that day.”

The ability and experience to make tough decisions and make connections pays dividends for Johnson in his role as cadet wing commander of AFROTC Detachment 220. As cadet wing commander, he is responsible for leading the 11th-largest program of its type in the country, with more than 150 cadets and a staff of approximately 50 people. Connections made through PSG and his involvement in other organizations, such as the Student Life Student Advisory Board, have given Johnson the expertise to know where to turn to solve problems. 

“Networking is a pillar of Steps to Leaps and this school is good at it,” Johnson says. “Anybody here, especially in administration and faculty will help you if you reach out and ask them for something. I’ve had that experience across departments and divisions, from professors to the Vice Provost. That has helped me as a leader more than anything because knowing that, I’m able to tell my people who to turn to when they hit a roadblock and don’t know what to do. I’d say from a leadership perspective my strength is being able to make those connections for others and facilitate them to do the best work they possibly can. I think that’s what a leader or manager is supposed to do.”

One of the challenges Johnson has been charged with addressing is improving the small group leadership performance of AFROTC cadets. Thanks to a connection with Purdue Recreation & Wellness (RecWell), Johnson has been able to facilitate the use of RecWell’s challenge course for AFROTC cadets to work on leadership and team building. While Purdue’s AFROTC program has always scored highly at their Field Training program, Johnson says this new connection will help push the unit’s leadership performance to higher levels. 

Perhaps Johnson’s largest undertaking in leadership has been in his role planning the upcoming Giant Leaps Symposium, scheduled for February 23-24, 2024, which will unite Purdue, the Department of Defense and defense industry leaders for a conference concerning the future of national defense. Purdue President Mung Chiang and General Thomas A. Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, will be keynote speakers at the event. The event will also include a career fair and tours of Purdue’s Hypersonic Applied Research Facility, which is home to two cutting-edge wind tunnels, including the only Mach 8 quiet wind tunnel in the world. 

Johnson’s role in putting together this groundbreaking event is connecting military and industry leaders with Purdue leadership, obtaining funding and coordinating logistics. He sees the potential of the event to have a major impact on Purdue’s role in national defense and hopes a successful event can be part of the legacy he leaves at the University.

“Hopefully, we can set Purdue up to continually do this in the future – maybe not every year, but every two or three years,” Johnson says. “I think Purdue is the location for this, especially because it aligns with our president’s goals as well as the Air Force and Space Force’s goals.” 

In addition to his extracurricular pursuits, Johnson performed extensive work on a Cold Case project through his academic coursework with Krystal Hans, assistant professor of forensic entomology. Johnson’s investigation into the death of Janet Shirar, the victim of a 1980 homicide in Kokomo, Indiana, was deeply meaningful as Shirar was the great aunt of Johnson’s wife, Janette. As a result of outstanding investigative work, he presented virtually at a symposium hosted by Arizona State University and spoke at Purdue’s Cold Case Symposium held in October. He was the only undergraduate student to present at each event. A first-generation college student, Johnson also spoke at Purdue’s inaugural Proud to Be F1RST! Reception, one of several events during First-Gen College Student Celebration Week. On top of these pursuits, Johnson works for Student Life Marketing, where he works with colleagues across the division on marketing projects.

Brayden and Janette walking down the aisle together after getting married.

Johnson has a strong foundation of family support for his endeavors at Purdue. He and Janette began dating late during their senior of high school, only weeks before school was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple continued dating while attending different schools, with Janette joining Brayden in Lafayette after graduating from Trine University. They were married in October 2023. Johnson has strong support from his parents, step-parents, and four half-siblings back home in Sweetser, Indiana. He credits family support for providing a strong foundation for his success.

“I learned a lot about pushing through challenges from my mom,” Johnson says. “She’s had to work really hard her whole life and I’ve learned a lot from her, especially about being independent. I look up to my Dad a lot. If I could be half as good a father as he has been, I’ll be happy.”

Upon graduation, Johnson will apply his practical and leadership skills as an intelligence officer in the US Air Force. His duties will be to synthesize information from various sources and condense it into briefings to help airmen complete their missions. He expects the communication skills he’s learned at Purdue to be a tremendous benefit.

“Purdue has given me the skills of communication more than anything else because I now know how to sit and talk to somebody who is way above my pay grade and have a confident conversation with them,” Johnson says. “I can also talk to someone who is at the bottom of the org chart and be able to relate to them. All of that comes from the practice and experience I’ve gotten here, given the nature of how connections are made at the university. I think that’s the biggest piece that’s going to help me.”

Purdue’s extensive network of student organizations, such as PSG, helps Purdue students connect with their interests and develop their leadership potential on campus. Learn more about Student Activities and Organizations by visiting the SAO website or connecting via Instagram.

Purdue University – Detachment 220 is the university’s home for future Air Force and Space Force leaders. Each year, Purdue consistently commissions 15 or more rated positions in various career fields and is the premier location for cadets interested in the Space Force. Learn more about Detachment 220 on the its website or follow on Facebook for news, updates and more.