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A journey of success

Donor support helped Justin Alexander leave behind a difficult past to imagine a better future for himself

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Engineering graduate Justin Alexander says receiving the Anna Toner Award for Academic Resiliency and Determination will inspire him as he pursues a master’s degree in business.

Justin Alexander, BESc’21, grew up in a home he describes as abusive and impoverished. With no family to turn to and too embarrassed to ask for help, Alexander was failing high school and feeling hopeless.

But after earning his pilot licence through the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, Alexander dared to imagine a better future for himself. His grades improved, and he set his sights on university – a goal deemed unrealistic by many. “A lot of people had written me off,” Alexander said.

That was a mistake.

In June, Alexander graduated from Western with an engineering degree and delivered a speech at the Engineering Class of 2021 virtual celebration.

There were times, however, when Alexander feared the naysayers were right. At his lowest point, he couldn’t summon the will to get out of bed. “Getting through the program was just as hard a mountain to climb as getting into it,” he recalled.

Though he struggled, Alexander didn’t give up. With the help of university staff, Alexander’s mental health improved, and he obtained financial aid. He made the Dean’s Honour List and varsity fencing team. He completed an internship in China and became an officer with the Canadian Armed Forces.

In recognition of his accomplishments in the face of many obstacles, Alexander received the Anna Toner Award for Academic Resiliency and Determination. A dedicated engineering student, Toner died of brain cancer in 2019. More than 25 donors came together to establish the annual award in her honour.

After receiving her diagnosis, “Anna decided that whatever life threw at her, she was going to meet it head-on and do her best,” said her mother, Louise Toner.

Anna actively participated in class and earned high marks while being treated for her illness. The award in her memory is an opportunity to express “awe at the achievements that students faced with adversity can overcome,” said her father, Bruce Toner.

Now enrolled in the Master of Science in Management program at the Ivey Business School, Alexander said the Anna Toner Award for Academic Resiliency and Determination would serve as a reminder of his strength, should self-doubt return.

“The award is validation that no matter what happens, you can get through it,” he said. “That’s what Anna did. She didn’t stop, and neither will I.”