When Justin Alexander looks to the future, it’s filled with possibilities of what he can become: a fighter jet pilot in the Air Force, the creator of a new fuel or energy source, a loving and supportive father. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago he was involved in drugs, living on the streets and failing high school.
“I wasn’t going very far in life,” said Alexander, 19, who just completed his first year in Engineering at Western. “One time in high school I actually had 3 per cent in a class. It wasn’t that I was stupid; I just never tried in school. I never saw myself at Western or in Engineering.”
An only child, Alexander was born in Winnipeg, Man., but was immediately abandoned by his mother at birth and moved with his father to London at three days old. After years surrounded by drugs and dealing with worsening abuse by his father, Alexander left home at 16 years old and spent months sleeping on friends’ couches when he could and in parks when he couldn’t.
“My father can’t work because of a car accident and wouldn’t be getting money for me once I became an adult. He told me when I turned 18 I wouldn’t be allowed to live in the house. I didn’t want to be homeless in the winter, so I decided to leave early. I grabbed my stuff and left. When I went back a few months later, he was gone and the house was for sale. I don’t know where he is,” Alexander continued.
Those months of being homeless before he found his own place to live were “horrible and hard.” He has supported himself since the age of 15 by working in restaurants. But those experiences also helped him realize that he wanted more out of his life.
“My mother and father didn’t graduate from high school. I believe your educational and professional choices affect your children. What you choose to do professionally will affect your income, too. I want to be a pilot, but I also want to do something that would be safer, financially. My biggest hope is that I can have a successful career so I can be there for my children in the future and they’ll never have to go through what I went through,” he said.
His involvement in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets was another catalyst for him, helping him to hone leadership skills and giving him the opportunity to earn his pilot’s license through the organization’s scholarship program.
“Air Cadets really saved me. I was successful in the pilot program and I thought, ‘Why am I not doing that in school?’ In Grade 11, I started trying harder and putting in the effort. The usual 50s and 60s turned into 80s and 90s.”
Once his grades improved, Alexander set his sights on university and applied to six schools, with Western being his first choice – and the last one he was accepted to, he said, adding he was so excited when he was notified that he “clicked yes right away.”
In an effort to raise money toward tuition, Alexander sought assistance through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, sold the “piece of junk” car he had recently purchased and applied for financial assistance.
“Since I didn’t have parental income, it was a long process for me to get a student loan because I had to prove that. I ended up having to sell my car to pay for text books, rent and everything and then three days after I did that I found out I received the Winnifred and Ross Harrison Bursary,” he said.
The Winnifred and Ross Harrison Bursary was established by a generous gift from Winnifred Harrison and her late husband, Ross. It is awarded to a first-year student with financial need. Although the Harrisons are not graduates of Western, they always believed in the transformative power of education.
Looking forward to beginning his second year in the fall, Alexander is happily living with roommates, continuing to work part-time and plans to resume his involvement with the cadets and volunteering with other campus organizations. He thinks he’ll one day have a career related to green processing or environmental engineering, but says he isn’t certain yet what the future holds for him.
“I’d like to be the guy who makes the new fuel or the new energy source because that’s the way the world is going now. We need it now more than ever. We’re paying a lot of money to get an education so you might as well have big plans for after,” he said.
Alexander also isn’t ruling out a career in the Royal Canadian Air Force. “Deep down I also still want to be a pilot. I’ve wanted to be a fighter jet pilot and join the Air Force since I was 6, but with all of the other things I had going on, I couldn’t put in the time commitment and I also thought maybe I should have a more practical career.
“I was so happy the first time I flew a plane solo. There’s a tradition that you’re supposed to sing as loud and as horribly as you want. I can’t remember what song it was now and it would have been embarrassing if anyone heard it, but it was amazing. Who knows? We’ll see what comes up. There’s no ‘for sure’ path yet.”
What he does know for sure is he wouldn’t be where he is now if it weren’t for help from others along the way. He hopes sharing his story will inspire others to give what they can.
“Getting the bursary helped me to only have to work on weekends and not miss any classes. It’s frustrating to me that education isn’t free, but that getting an education is also sometimes the only way to break the cycle,” Alexander said. “If you don’t have the money or your parents don’t have it, it’s hard. I didn’t ask to have parents like mine and I want to go to school. I would work more hours if I could and still go to school but it’s not possible. I need financial support or I wouldn’t be here. Everyone’s story is different.”
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