Courtesy of Reilly Johnson

During Reilly Johnson’s first semester at Yale, her mother sent her a package. Inside was a cross-stitched image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg framed next to the quote: “Fight for the things that you care about.” Reilly, who looks up to both her mother and RBG as inspiring examples “of women that follow their ambitions,” has kept the cross-stitch on her dorm room desk ever since.

Those of you who know Reilly Johnson must know that she does, in her mild words, “a lot of student government stuff.” This year, she is the president of the Sophomore Class Council, a senator in the Yale College Council and the secretary of the Ezra Stiles College Council.

But in high school, Reilly had no real interest in student government. She initially joined the FCC as vice president because she thought it would be a good opportunity to meet people. “I found a lot of fulfillment and reward in those two semesters,” she told me over dinner in Stiles the other night. She described the class council as a group with a simple goal: to improve the lives of students. The people Reilly has met through student government have inspired her with their energy and their commitment to helping others.

If I learned one thing about Reilly over the dinner we shared, it is that, like those she surrounds herself with, she wants to help people. In the SoCo, Reilly focuses on event planning. In the YCC, her projects are more policy-oriented, and she works on a team aimed at providing resources for students on campus who have experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Outside of student government, Reilly, who is majoring in political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, talks about earning a law degree and working in civil rights or human rights law, possibly with the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. She names criminal justice reform and access to education as issues she cares about.

“I always knew I was going to be a poli-sci major,” she told me. “I was like that kid in third grade where you argue with the teacher, and the teacher’s like, ‘you’re gonna be a lawyer one day.’ And I was like, ‘you’re right.’”

Reilly understands this tenacity may sometimes go too far. “I think that if I had a vice — I’m sure I have many vices — but one of them would be stubbornness,” she said. However, since coming to Yale, Reilly has become much more capable of engaging with people who have different perspectives. Speaking of being a student here, she told me, “You have to either accept that you’re going to feel alienated the whole time, or you have to open your mind to learning.”

Reilly hails from Hamilton, Ohio. “Oh, it’s so, so interesting,” she said of her home. “It’s so different from Yale. I really love my hometown, but it’s in one of the reddest parts of Ohio.”

Coming from the conservative cradle of her hometown to Yale’s liberal campus was a bit of a culture shock at first. She had never really thought about, in her words, “how deeply conservatism affects the culture of a place.” Still, Reilly was no stranger to what she calls the “inequities” of her hometown: sharp socio-economic divisions and a legacy of racist housing discrimination. Reilly’s parents, who are both professors, made sure she was aware of her privilege as a middle-class white person in her city.

The start to Yale was marked by more than just culture shock. Reilly admits she struggled with being so far away from her parents, who she has a close relationship with, and her home, where she has lived her whole life. “I was so homesick,” she said. “I cried every night for a week. But I got through it, obviously.”

Now, Reilly loves Yale, especially its emphasis on community. At the end of her first semester, when Reilly got pneumonia and was too sick to hike to the nearest dining hall, her friends brought meals up to her room. When Reilly and her friends hang out, they like to talk about serious issues, which she appreciates, but they also frequent Bow Tie Criterion Cinema and indulge in takeout on the common room floor. “Every once in a while, we’ll go wild and go to Bonchon,” she told me. “It’s by the theatre, so if you’re trying to have a good time: Bonchon and the Bow Tie.”

But part of being in a community means respecting all community members, and Reilly wishes she could make some adjustments to life on campus. In addition to her work to improve campus culture around sexual misconduct, Reilly criticizes some of Yale’s institutional policies, namely their “less-than-full support” of first-generation, low-income students. She wishes that everyone on campus, but especially the administration, had “a little bit better sense of the diversity of students and what that means for how we need to act.”

“I think Yale is a very special place, and everything I do to change Yale is out of love,” she told me.

And Reilly is optimistic that this change is possible because she has faith in Yale students. “I cannot think of a single person I have met at Yale who has truly wanted to hurt anyone or didn’t want to do positive, productive things with their lives,” she said. “I don’t see how with all of these students here we cannot improve Yale and then improve the world, right? Just knowing the students that are on this campus makes me feel so good about our future.”

In moments like this, when Reilly Johnson talks about changing the world, it is hard not to believe her. I have been surrounded by high-achieving people my whole life, but Reilly’s ambition is something unique. When she talks about helping people, she never sounds self-righteous. She lays no false claim to heroism. She is unpretentious because she knows she cannot do her work alone. Reilly is a team player. She sees the good in everyone, and she is constantly inspired by the people around her. And I am sure they are equally inspired by her.

Andrew Kornfeld | andrew.kornfeld@yale.edu