CCC student success: From darkness to light

CCC2NAU student Justin Wilgus graduated from NAU in December after making a challenging journey. 


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- In his own words, he could have turned a difficult upbringing and destructive choices into excuses why he couldn’t succeed in life.

Instead, he fought tooth and nail from a dark path to find purchase on sunny bedrock on which to build a successful life.

On Dec. 18, CCC2NAU student Justin Wilgus graduated from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in geology and a minor in math. He is also a Gold Axe and President’s Prize winner.

The President’s Prize is awarded to students for their exemplary leadership, academic excellence and service to the NAU community. The Gold Axe ward is presented to select students each semester to recognize their outstanding achievements and distinguished service to the university and the greater community.

“I didn’t even know if it was possible to go to school,” Wilgus said. “CCC taught me that I loved learning, and I was hooked.”


Wilgus had a challenging childhood. His father died when he was young. At times, he and his family were homeless, living in tents, cars and shelters. He felt different from the other kids, and he turned to substances to cope.

“I didn’t know I was struggling with addiction until I began sobriety,” Wilgus said. “Addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful. It can happen to anybody.”

His life changed in 2008, when he moved to Flagstaff and stayed at a halfway house for men. He immersed himself in the recovery community, found a job and began building a normal life. In the fall of 2009, he walked onto the CCC Lone Tree Campus.

“When I was a kid, I enjoyed learning,” he said, adding that geology had been fascinating to him when he was in high school.

Wilgus started taking classes. He said he loved the small, “community” atmosphere at CCC. He didn’t feel different; he didn’t feel out of place.

“I don’t know if all community colleges are that way, but for me, here, it was special,” Wilgus said.

He had to take more classes than normal to graduate, so it took longer, Wilgus said.

He started in rudimentary math classes, and because he had a good math teacher at CCC, he rediscovered an affinity for numbers. He was accepted into the TRiO program. TRiO is designed to help with student retention, graduation and transfer to a four-year college by fostering a climate supportive of the success of low-income and first-generation college students and people with disabilities. He received financial help with scholarships from the CCC Foundation.


After his first geology class at CCC, he knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life.

“For me, it’s kind of where intellect and physical ability meet each other,” Wilgus said, grinning. He feels at home out in the field, looking at the geologic time, the layers, the landscape and trying to figure out what happened or what might happen. “I had it in me, and I chose to pursue something I was passionate about.”

His focus in geology is tectonics and seismology.

He received his Associates of Science from CCC in 2013 and transitioned to NAU. His contributions to the institution, his involvement with the community and his dedication to his education contributed to the honors he received.

“I’m extremely grateful,” Wilgus said. “Things compounded. I kept thinking, ‘What’s possible next?’ Every day, I did the footwork, the little goals that added up to an accomplishment I never dreamed of.”

He added, “As more possibilities opened, it started growing upon itself.”

Wilgus credits his success with help from a host of caring people in the community, at CCC and at NAU.

“I’ve had so much help,” he said. “That’s what’s allowed me to get this far. It’s so freeing today that I’m not defined by my past.”

Wilgus has already begun the process of finding a graduate program. He is interested in the geology programs in Flagstaff, Reno, Nev., and Albuquerque, N.M.

He recited a quote that he finds important: “I’ve come a long way and have a lot to offer, and at the same time, I have a ways to go and a lot to learn.”

He also quoted Thomas Edison, “Opportunity is missed by most because it wears overalls and looks like hard work.”


Friday, 15th January 2016

All Dates

  • Friday, 15th January 2016