"I thought it was clever," Justin, now 22, said. He paused for a beat and grinned. "But true."
Justin entered Texas A&M University as an 18-year-old freshman in fall 2008. A Texas native from north of Dallas, he intended to be an Animal Science major, maybe show cattle like he'd done in high school, and be involved in some campus groups.
He had no idea that one year later he'd have a profile in the New York Times, a live interview on MSNBC, and a reputation as a tough, principled conservative activist and student leader.
In his orientation week at A&M, Justin met up with Tony Listi, a senior, a graduate of four Leadership Institute trainings, and a future LI staff member. Tony had founded a campus conservative group, later known as the Texas Aggie Conservatives, and he wanted Justin to be involved. The two reviewed Tony's plan for the year and, in less than two weeks, Justin was the group's Technology Director, responsible for video footage and the website.
At the group's first activism event in September 2008, Justin was “really timid,” as he explained. It was a counter-protest to the Brazos Valley Coalition Against the War, and he spent the time holding a camera -- not a sign.
But that afternoon was the first time Justin saw the benefits of activism. "Everyone was honking at us and rolling down their windows," he said. "I got the sense that what we were doing was important."
In October, Justin suggested the Texas Aggie Conservatives present a birthday cake to a Democratic congressman visiting campus. The congressman voted with Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, 96% of the time.
The cake was frosted with a photo of the congressman with Speaker Pelosi, and a pretty pink heart next to “96%” written in icing. At the congressman’s event, Justin manned the camera, Tony presented the cake, and the rest of the group gave a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“It was the craziest thing we've ever done,” Justin said.
He was hooked.
By his sophomore year, Justin was chairman of the Texas Aggie Conservatives, and the group was ready for its biggest year yet.
Justin had attended LI's Student Activism Conference in Austin the previous year. He met with student leaders from across Texas and Oklahoma, and worked with Institute staff to get how-to lessons and create an activism plan for his campus. To finish the 2008-2009 school year, the Texas Aggie Conservatives hosted a tea party, celebrated Ronald Reagan’s birthday, had conservative speaker events, and passed out flyers showing Aggie professors’ endorsements of domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.
Justin was not uncertain about being a campus activist anymore. He relished it.
“I came to the realization that it’s either me or no one,” Justin said. “No one else is going to stand up for the conservative philosophy on campus. No one else is going to stand up for our values. No one else is going to do it for us. I had tons of friends and allies, but if I hadn’t been an organizer, all that potential would have been lost.”
In August 2009, Justin's group members protested their Congressman at a health care town hall, earning media coverage in the liberal Huffington Post. In September, the group hosted a 9/11 Never Forget Memorial, planting flags for each victim of the terrorist attacks; celebrated Constitution Day by handing out pocket Constitutions; and entertained more than 200 students at “Laugh at the Left,” a comedy night with conservative talk radio host Michael Graham.
But October was the best of all.
On October 16, President Obama came to campus amidst the heated national debate on healthcare – and the Texas Aggie Conservatives were ready. With conservative students and activists from across the state, the Aggies held a rally of hundreds united against the national healthcare draft.
Protesters held signs and chanted while group members dressed up in costume – as President Obama, as the Grim Reaper, and even as Uncle Sam – and collected petition signatures. The media was there to cover it, thanks in part to Justin's work with LI's CampusReform.org staff to publicize the event.
Justin emerged as the student leader of the movement, which was covered by local, state, and national media. He was profiled in the New York Times as the "most dangerous man on campus," and even did a live MSNBC interview from the protest. The interview was supposed to be on-camera, but -- as Justin recalled -- an administrator wouldn't allow him past a security checkpoint to MSNBC's cameras, so he finished it by phone.
“Activism, especially controversial activism, might seem intense at first,” Justin said. “But if you’re professional and have a good message, your activism will rally the troops and get media attention for the conservative movement.”
The protest was only one part of Justin’s plans for the weekend, though. The next day, he hosted LI’s Youth Leadership School on campus, training 48 students. His group sponsored a movie screening on Sunday and a talk with Lord Monckton, a conservative speaker against radical environmentalists, on Monday.
“That’s like a snapshot of four days in the life of a student activist,” Justin said. “It’s intense.”
His writing for The Anthem, an independent conservative student publication which LI field staff helped students establish, piqued his interest in student government. Justin ran for, and won, one-year terms in the Student Senate in spring 2009 and 2010.
“I don’t think I stood up and talked at all in the entire first semester,” Justin said. “I didn’t ask questions, I didn’t debate, and I certainly didn’t write any legislation.”
Halfway through his first term, Justin asked a question in a Senate meeting. At the next meeting he debated. Before he knew it, he was writing bills, influencing the agenda, and providing live video and recordings for A&M students and for official recordkeeping. Before that, administrators would come to the Student Senate to request student fee increases – and none of the requests were on the record.
Justin spent his first year in Student Senate working with friends and allies to build a conservative caucus. Together, they identified and recruited conservative students, and trained them to run winning campaigns, hosting LI’s Campus Election Workshop at A&M.
After his own reelection in spring 2010, Justin turned his attention to a big issue, soon to become another national story: in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
Since 2001, as Justin first explained in a CampusReform.org blog post, Texas had allowed illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition benefits. Out-of-state residents paid more than $15,000 each year to attend A&M while Texan taxpayers subsidized 12,138 illegal students in the 2009-2010 school year.
Justin introduced a bill to end the practice at A&M with more than 40 other Aggies. His group collected more than 500 student signatures in support of the bill, and grew a Facebook group – Aggies Against In-State Tuition for Illegal Aliens – to more than 1,500 members in less than a week.
The story was picked up by local, state, and national media, including a clip with the Associated Press and an interview with Fox News.
“Because we worked with LI’s Campus Leadership Program and CampusReform.org, we were able to be very successful,” Justin said frankly. “If not for that, we would have just been some college kids messing around, introducing bills in a Student Senate meeting. Our message would not have gotten any further than the 75 people in the Senate room.”
The Student Senate passed the bill with a majority, but the student body president vetoed it. Conservatives in the Student Senate couldn’t find the votes to override the veto. But the fight didn’t end there.
Thanks to the media attention for A&M’s bill, Justin said, six bills were introduced in the Texas state legislature to end taxpayer-subsidized tuition for illegal immigrants.
The bill was contentious on campus – and Justin felt the ire of the campus left personally.
“It’s ridiculous how much people can hate,” Justin said bluntly. He recalled reams of insulting emails and even an A&M professor who told him “go f--- yourself, Pulliam” as he collected petition signatures for the measure in November.
But for Justin, the fight was worth it.
“We kept the pressure on, and we kept dragging it out, bringing it up, and getting more and more press for the issue,” Justin explained. “In doing so, we advanced the conservative agenda.”
Justin graduated from Texas A&M in December 2011 with a degree in Animal Science, a Senator of the Year Award from the Student Senate officers, and a lifelong commitment to conservative activism.
Last month, Justin received the Weyrich Award for Youth Leader of the Year. The award, part of the Weyrich Awards Dinner, honors the legacy of leadership of the late Paul Weyrich, one of the foremost thinkers and organizers of the modern conservative movement and who was the first president of the Heritage Foundation, a founder and past director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the founder and Chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, and the National Chairman of Coalitions for America.
“I was shocked to receive the award,” Justin said. He paused for a moment and then added, “I would love to train next year’s Weyrich Youth Leader of the Year. That would mean so much to me. The best success for the conservative leader is to train someone to do better.”
Justin may be uniquely positioned to complete his goal.
In mid-February this year, he started work at the Leadership Institute as a Regional Field Coordinator for LI’s Campus Leadership Program. His job is to give conservative student leaders the support, guidance, and advice he once counted on from LI staff.
“The Leadership Institute can arm you with the knowledge, tactics, tools, and training to be able to advance the conservative movement and defeat the left on campus,” Justin explained. “There's a lot to fight against, and all the resources are here under LI’s roof: great people, great resources, great training, and great tools.”
Whether you are a young conservative or you know a young conservative eager to do more for his or her principles, contact the Leadership Institute’s Campus Leadership Program right now.
“Anyone with a motivation can do what I did,” Justin said. “By utilizing the resources available at LI, even a busy college student – a student concerned about getting a job or keeping a high GPA – can be an effective conservative student leader, can advance their cause, can build a coalition, and can even appear on national media.”
There’s no better endorsement than that.
This piece was published in the spring 2012 issue of the Leadership Institute's Leadership Memo.