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Overcoming adversity to achieve Sun Devil dream

ASU online student Justin Sanchez (middle) with his family.
May 11, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

A Phoenix native, Justin Sanchez has always considered himself a Sun Devil. In fact, he’s been displaying his Arizona State University pride since birth. His first baby photo was taken in a Sun Devil sweater, a prized article of clothing he’s committed to keeping in the family for future generations.

“I actually still have that sweater, and it gets passed around to different family members when they have a new baby,” he said.

The grandson of an ASU alumnus, Sanchez is fulfilling his destiny this May as he graduates with his Bachelor of Science in emergency management and homeland security from the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

However, some unexpected news once threatened to change the course of Sanchez’s life. Not long after enrolling at ASU, he was diagnosed with cancer. Despite this, he kept going and managed to beat the disease, all while juggling his responsibilities as a student and working full time as a senior nuclear security officer.

“I went through surgery during finals in fall 2018 and underwent chemotherapy in spring 2019. As of today, I’m cancer-free,” Sanchez said. 

In addition to being a student, he is also a Marine veteran and a member of the first graduating cohort of the Veteran Scholar Program. Sanchez is passionate about using his ASU experiences to help make a difference in his community and support fellow service members in pursuing a college education after leaving the military. 

He’ll be solidifying his legacy with ASU later this fall as he begins the Master of Arts program in biosecurity and threat management with Watts College. Continue reading to learn more about Sanchez and his unique experience as an online student and finally, an ASU alumnus. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment was sitting at work at Palo Verde Generating Station (PVGS). I’ve worked in nuclear security there for the past 11 years, and I knew I wanted more in my professional life. I needed to be pushed and stressed out a little, and I wanted more than what I was doing already. I’ve been in this line of work for a long time, starting in the Marine Corps from 2004-2008 and at PVGS, but it’s always been at the lower echelon. I wanted to be at the higher end, making the decisions — the plan — and seeing it executed.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Something I learned at ASU is that I really love being part of the community and serving it. Before going to school, I really had no interest in community service. ASU changed that in me, with the Sun Devils in Disguise and the Veteran Scholar Program. It pushed me to become a more active member in the ASU community and my own in the West Valley, where I became a tutor at the local high school in my area.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: This is an easy question. ASU is in my blood. My first baby photo says it all. My grandfather Pete Sanchez went to ASU in the 1940s and graduated before going into the Arizona Air National Guard and serving more than 40 years. For them, it's just a family affair. I remember being at the ASU vs. Nebraska game in the ‘90s when we won and the students stormed the field and walked the goal post down Mill Avenue. ASU is who I am at my core, and it was a lifelong dream to be able to officially become a Sun Devil.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Not a teacher or professor, but my leaders in the Veteran Scholar Program, Brett Hunt and Michelle Loposky, have really been instrumental in showing me that ASU, Arizona and our nation are in desperate need of true leaders. I hope to be able to take the things they have taught me to my community and make a difference.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best advice I can give to anyone still pushing through at ASU is just keep going! Get that work done, and then slow down and look around. ASU is a beautiful campus and has this electricity inside of it. Feed off of that and make this time the best in your life! I know I have and will continue to as I move through my graduate program.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I am fortunate to be an online student but also be able to come to campus for activities. I love Memorial Union and the hustle when it's packed, but my sanctuary is Sun Devil Stadium. I had the opportunity to help out with opening ceremonies during the 2018-19 football season. The moment I stepped foot on the field it was the greatest rush.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on pursuing my master’s in the same field. I still work full time at PVGS in nuclear security, but I hope to be able to move on to bigger and better things in the future. However, right now I’m just enjoying being a Sun Devil!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would work on something smaller here in our Arizona community and get more veterans on campus. I feel that vets are a valuable resource with all the life experience and knowledge they take away after they leave the military. It's then when they can go out into their communities all over the country and start making the U.S. and world a better place for everyone. The smallest spark can start the largest fire within someone. I hope I can do that for someone.

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