Finding home as a Hokie
Justin Graves keeps the Ut Prosim pylon close to his heart, literally.
“Whenever I would have a bad day, if I did bad on a test or got in an argument with a friend or something, this would be my happy place,” said the two-time Virginia Tech alumnus.
During a recent visit to campus, Graves ’12, MAED ’14 had the pylon’s exact geographic coordinates tattooed on his left side of his chest, just over his heart.
For Graves, the pylon bearing the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), is an all-inclusive connection to his family’s military history, his personal drive to serve, and his experience finding his lifelong home in Blacksburg.
“Being a person of color, being a person with a disability, you know, I found so many different pockets of friends and so many people that were accepting of the person I was when my life growing up was not always that way. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a place that truly feels like home,’” Graves said. “And I still feel that way. That’s why I come back so often. People love me, I love them, and that’s why it feels like home.”
Graves, who was diagnosed with a rare spinal inflammation as a child, credits his parents, Margo and Larry Graves, with helping him develop a spirit of persistence and positivity.
“They always were focused on not treating me any different than my other siblings,” Graves said. “That’s definitely a mindset I’ve carried with me throughout my life. I’m always trying to make sure I’m putting myself out there as a human before I put anything to do with my wheelchair out there, and that’s all thanks to Margo and Larry.”
During his time at Tech, Graves served as Hokie Ambassador president, which involved giving campus tours. He also worked at the Collegiate Times, a position that enabled him to interview top-level administrators as a news reporter and then as the public editor.
Today, Graves lives in Northern Virginia, where he works as a project manager for the Department of Homeland Security in D.C., and he maintains a steady schedule of speaking engagements through HESONWHEELS, a company he founded. An accompanying blog, HESONWHEELS.com, deepens Graves’ connection with students he mentored at Tech and the friends he has met along the way.
Although he is now a few hundred miles away, staying active in the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg communities is important to Graves. He’s served on a number of boards, including the Multicultural Alumni Advisory Board and the VT YMCA Board of Directors, and is currently a member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.
“If I’m going through my closet and I have clothes to donate, I put them in the corner of my room and then bring them to Blacksburg on my next trip. I don’t donate them in Fairfax because you know, home is where the heart is,” Graves said.
Graves’ passion for Virginia Tech has become somewhat legendary, but he admits that wasn’t always the case. If fact, he became a Hokie in part by accident.
While applying for early admission, he failed to read the fine print, so once accepted, his parents had to clear up his misunderstanding about Virginia Tech merely being an option.
“My parents clarified and explained, no, if you got in here, you have to go. They were right,” Graves said. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Graves toured the campus, just to make sure Blacksburg was the place for him. That experience and his tour leader, whom he only remembers as Michelle, lit a fire in him.
“I never met Michelle again, but I will never forget her passion for Tech,” Graves said. “I wanted to share that.”
Justin Graves at his “happy place”
A similar chance encounter at an ice cream social led Graves to pursue one of the roles for which he would become well-known on campus. There, Courtney Smith introduced him to the Hokie Ambassador program and addressed Graves’ concern that he may not be able to give a quality tour from his wheelchair.
“Having met me 10 minutes prior, she was like, ‘you really don’t seem like the type of person that would let that hold you back,’ and I thought about it, and I was like, ‘damn, she’s right,’” Graves said.
Graves would go on to lead campus tours throughout his time as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. In one semester, he led 35 tours.
Graves said he hoped to demonstrate the opportunities underrepresented populations have at Virginia Tech to those who might believe otherwise.
“I was always thinking … hopefully an interaction with me, or just seeing me, could change their perspective and help them see that Blacksburg is a community where anyone can thrive,” Graves said.
Being an ambassador allowed Graves to talk with new Hokies, but writing for the Collegiate Times created opportunities for interviews and conversation with high-level university administrators.
“Dr. Steger was probably one of my biggest mentors that I had during undergrad at Tech,” Graves said. “I gained a ton from him, and I hope he got a little bit from me.”
Graves would go on to serve as the student representative on the search committee that would identify Tim Sands as Charles Steger’s successor as University President.
A highlight of his senior year, Graves was selected to represent the college newspaper on the Homecoming Court. To generate support across campus, Graves’ friend Jamie Chung suggested the slogan, “Justin Graves: He’s on wheels.”
“I was like, ‘Jamie, that’s horrible,’” said Graves of his first reaction. “That’s so lame. No one is going to like that. But we put it to a vote [at the newspaper] and everyone loved it, so that was literally the motto for the Homecoming campaign.”
Although Graves finished as the runner-up in the race for Homecoming King, almost a decade later, the motto has evolved into a personal brand to promote Graves’ work as a motivational speaker and to help him advance his goal of meeting one new person each day.
Justin Graves with his dog Charlotte and Growley, the Corps of Cadets mascot.
This year, there have been three days during which he hasn’t met a new person, which pushed his total of days missed since 2008 to about a dozen.
“Honestly, I have to give my dog a lot of credit,” said Graves of his 12-year-old Beagle mix, Charlotte. “I just go outside, and people are, ‘oh my gosh, she’s so cute, what’s her name’? She’s just as outgoing as I am.”
An extrovert to his core, Graves aims to inspire others to step out of their comfort zones and hopes that the effort might result in a world that more closely resembles the community he experienced during college.
“Whenever some people talk about Southwest Virginia, and especially Blacksburg, that’s what they talk about—community. That was what stuck out to me during that first official visit,” Graves said. “That’s a big part of how deeply rooted and connected I still feel, not just to Virginia Tech, but to Blacksburg and the entire community and the New River Valley as a whole.”