He was homeless. Now, he’s receiving MSU Denver’s highest student honor
Justin Guy turned his life around to pursue service to others and make a lasting impact on Colorado history.
Justin Guy had no plans to apply for the President’s Award at Metropolitan State University of Denver. One of his professors talked him into it, he said.
“I’m very happy (to be graduating) already,” Guy said. “But my teacher thought I should share my story with the world.”
After overcoming homelessness, Guy earned his associate’s degree and transferred to MSU Denver. In no time, the History and Biology major was not only interning at History Colorado but winning its 2022 Volunteer of the Year award and conducting significant research for a recent report on the Native American boarding school at Fort Lewis College. He can now add to his accolades the President’s Award, MSU Denver’s highest student honor.
Guy grew up in a Denver neighborhood rife with gang violence. He “hung out with the wrong crowd,” began using drugs and eventually left high school before finishing 10th grade.
That was around the time he read the bestselling book “The Secret,” and it sparked what would become a lifelong interest in personal growth and service to others. “It opened my eyes … to a world of possibilities that I had never imagined,” Guy said. “I could be as happy as I wanted in life and do whatever I chose.”
He decided to enrich people’s lives through music, even though he had never played an instrument. He lived in Hawaii at the time, and he dedicated himself to mastering the guitar with such focus that he eventually became homeless. He became so proficient at his instrument that he was hired by a tourism company, but it wasn’t enough. He found himself facing a misdemeanor charge for allegedly violating local anti-panhandling laws.
To Guy, these laws were an injustice to the homeless community — a group that already faced hardship and discrimination — as well as a violation of the First Amendment. In line with Guy’s sense of self-determination, he fought back. He contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 2014 the county laws against solicitation were repealed.
With a renewed desire to serve, Guy returned to Colorado with a dream. Some of his fondest childhood memories were of visiting museums, and he was determined to work in one. He didn’t have a high school diploma, but then he didn’t know how to play music before either, so he got to work.
After earning an associate’s degree, he transferred to MSU Denver, a place where there are “so many different kinds of people, but you never feel out of place,” he said, and landed an internship with History Colorado. When the opportunity to conduct research for a History Colorado report on the Native American boarding school at Fort Lewis College came up, he jumped at it. “Being part Native made (the research) both emotionally challenging and deeply rewarding,” said Guy. It was another chance to serve others. Another way to make lasting change.
Guy will graduate in December, but his journey is far from over. The museum work has inspired a new vocation: teaching. “I want to become a teacher and work in a neighborhood like the one I grew up in,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of those teachers were trained to deal with kids like us. But coming from that, I connect with them.”
But first, as part of the award, he must deliver a speech at the University’s Commencement ceremony. Asked if that would be hard for him, considering it wasn’t his idea to apply for the award in the first place, he said no. “I’m proud,” he said. “Even though it’s a different kind of story, and some people might see shame in being homeless, everybody’s unique, and we have to be ourselves.”