Justin Wilgus applied for the coveted Gold Axe award on a whim, with no expectations of being one of the 22 students chosen from more than 100 Northern Arizona University applicants. He was shocked to learn he not only received the award, but also was one of two students to win the President’s Prize. “I thought only student government members were chosen for this type of thing. I definitely didn’t think it’d be someone like me.”

Justin grew up in what he calls “an unconventional environment.” Cycles of poverty, unemployment and homelessness were pervasive throughout his childhood.

Justin’s parents separated when he was young. His father struggled with legal troubles and addiction, and his mother was forced to move their family from motels and cars to tents and shelters. By the age of 18, plagued with feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, Justin had turned to substances to cope.

“At my lowest point I was sleeping outside and panhandling for money to support my habit,” he said. “I was completely lost. I was unaware that I was suffering from the illness of addiction, the same illness that contributed to my father’s death at the age of 47.”

On May 22, 2008, after hitting rock bottom, Justin decided it was time for a life change. He moved from Los Angeles to The Foundation House, a non-profit sober living facility in Flagstaff. “I will always remember that day; it was snowing … in May,” Justin recalled.

Over the course of eight months, with the help of mentors and an action-based recovery program, he found relief from addiction. Since then, he has remained continuously sober, mentoring those with similar backgrounds and dedicating himself to furthering his education.

“I was in gifted courses as a kid, and I loved learning. But at some point, I just grew disconnected. I wasn’t in an environment that fostered importance on education. Going to college didn’t even seem like a possibility.”

With help from The Foundation House, several scholarships and a tuition waiver from the All Arizona Academic Team, Justin enrolled in the CCC2NAU program to study geology and mathematics.

He has since received a research grant from NASA, a first place award at the NAU Undergraduate and Research Design Symposium and was recognized as the Outstanding Geology Student of the Year. He also conducts cutting edge research with David Brumbaugh, renowned NAU professor and earthquake expert.

“Justin is one of the brightest and hardest working students I have ever collaborated with on a research project,” Brumbaugh said. “I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be his mentor, and watch him progress as a researcher. Justin has had to overcome many obstacles to arrive at this place and time in life. He is to be congratulated and emulated.”

Justin will graduate summa cum laude next week and plans to pursue a master’s degree in geology.