Before He Was a National Figure, Justin J. Pearson ’17 Made Lasting Impressions As a Student

By Rebecca Goldfine
Over the past week, Pearson has been making national news every day. Few at Bowdoin are surprised to see him rising to the occasion, handling the intensity of the moment with thoughtful deliberation to help ensure a positive outcome.
Justin Pearson portrait
A recent portrait of Justin J. Pearson ’17 by Houston Cofield.

*The Associated Press reported just before 5 p.m., Wednesday, April 12, that Justin Pearson will return to the Republican-led Tennessee House after a Memphis commission voted to reinstate him nearly a week after his banishment for supporting gun control protesters propelled him into the national spotlight.

Pearson is one of two Tennessee House representatives that the Republican majority voted to expel for protesting on the House floor. Along with Justin Jones, Pearson was penalized for joining public demonstrators demanding gun reform after a mass shooter murdered three children and three adults in a Nashville school.

While the circumstances of the expulsions are dismaying—and have elicited widespread condemnation for being unprecedented and anti-democratic—Pearson's professors and others who knew him as a student praise the way he has handled the flood of attention.

"He now has a very loud bullhorn, thanks to the foolish behavior of the majority of the Tennessee legislators," said Andrew Rudalevige, Bowdoin's Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government. Rudalevige added that he's been impressed by the speeches and media appearances he's seen from Pearson so far. "He has taken the high road, disparaging the process and talking about the ways democracy works and needs to get better," Rudalevige said. 

Pearson's focus on serving others and his community was apparent from his earliest days at Bowdoin. In his first semester, he was elected to the Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) as class president and also participated in a semester-long McKeen Center program called Leading for the Common Good. In the program, students examine best practices for community engagement, and how to most effectively and equitably promote the common good. 

At Bowdoin

During his time at Bowdoin—between 2013 and 2017—Pearson was a Mellon Mays Fellow, served on Residential Life, and was a recipient of The Thomas A. McKinley '06 and Hannah Weil McKinley '08 Summer Fellowship. In his senior year he received the President’s Award

Pearson's accomplishments have also been featured in Bowdoin news stories and publications over the years:

"He was always interested in issues of social justice," Rudalevige said, "and how can you work to make the system bend toward justice. He wanted to see how to make the system work toward better outcomes."

Both Pearson and Jones, the other relatively young legislator pushed out of the House, are "impressive role models to young people," Rudalevige added.

Kristin Brennan, executive director of the Office of Career Exploration and Development (CXD), met Pearson when he returned for AF/AM50 in 2019—Bowdoin's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Africana studies, the African American Society, and the John Brown Russwurm African American Center. Brennan recalls speaking with Pearson about supporting younger people.

"He and I really connected over the importance of sharing experiences and identity with students, how powerful it can be to see someone who walked in your shoes recently making a huge difference in the world," she said.

"Students are absolutely drawn to and inspired by him and the way he thoughtfully pursues meaning in his work and in his life," Brennan added. "In fact, it’s his face you see when you visit the CXD home page—that photo is there because it captures the power of connection between alumni and students in inspiring one another."

Pearson has stayed involved with Bowdoin since graduating, especially with the McKeen Center, CXD, and the government department. Last fall, he Zoomed with a class Rudalevige taught about presidents and civil rights. "Justin gave the students an idea of what it takes to step up and do this kind of work in the real world," Rudalevige said.

One of the students in the class, Emma Gibbens ’25, said that Pearson's "commitment to initiating change at the grassroots level and standing with his community in the face of adversity left the greatest impression."

She added that it was also refreshing to hear how he redirected students' attention, which so often fixates on national issues, to "the work of past and present activists at the local level, emphasizing the impact of environmental racism, disenfranchisement, and educational inequity, all issues characteristic of a systemic problem but manifest in local communities."

Illustration of the two young representatives expelled from the house with a caption, No Justins, No Peace
Illustration by Gretchen Selke ’00 of the two House representatives penalized for protesting gun violence: Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson ’17

Jack Andrews ’25, another student in the class, also appreciated hearing about Pearson's involvement in Memphis, especially about his victorious work to halt the construction of a pipeline that would have cut through a Black neighborhood. "It was inspiring to see that their efforts prevailed," Andrews said. "I think his enthusiasm and dedication really resonated with a lot of people in class, including myself."

At Bowdoin, Pearson majored in government and legal studies and education, and was active with BSG throughout his time at the College. Most people at Bowdoin assumed he would enter politics one day.

"The thing that struck me about him, in addition to his intelligence, was his earnestness and sincerity," Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger said. "Students can opt to take a deeply cynical approach to politics, and he steadfastly resisted or opposed that approach."

Pearson's realistic optimism, rooted in his study of politics and history, was "a winning formula," Selinger said, and he and other faculty encouraged him to pursue politics. "Being all doom and gloom does not help a candidacy. But being a person who has a grounded optimism, in addition to intelligence and eloquence, means that people take well to him."

Others at Bowdoin reminisced about how kind Pearson always was, how he would go out of his way to make thoughtful gestures. 

Director of Student Accessibility Lesley Levy, who was Pearson's upperclass dean at the time, remembered that he would occasionally swing by the student affairs office for a friendly visit. "There aren't a lot of students who stop by to say 'hi' to the deans!" Levy said. "He was so engaged on the campus level, and was always seeking to make connections with people."

Lisa Rendall, director of residential and housing operations, recalled that Pearson was "always aware and appreciative of the work employees did to make Bowdoin a special place he called home for four years."

Brennan, too, remarked that "he’s singularly genuine and kind," and remains invested in the relationships he made as a student. "Every time I talk with him about his travels back to Bowdoin, he’s always combining it with a visit to the church community he formed [at First Parish Church in Brunswick] and to the retirement home where his host mother at Bowdoin now lives."

Some also interpret another memorable quality that Pearson had as a student—that he was always immaculately dressed, rarely not in a suit and tie—as yet another way he showed his appreciation and respect for Bowdoin.

"Wearing a suit is in keeping with his optimistic outlook," Selinger said. "It was almost as if to say that his place at Bowdoin and what we do here is very important, that it is a gift and we should take it seriously."

Pearson applied the same care with his dress to his public voice. As a senior, he scheduled regular appointments with Director of Writing and Rhetoric Meredith McCarroll to discuss and write about current events, as a way "to polish" how he communicated about the world around him, she said.

The two would talk about news articles, "seeking deeper understanding and connections through our discussions. I was simply someone who sat with him, asked him questions, and encouraged him to use his voice," she added.

Working toward self-improvement was an essential part of his character, said Director of Residential Life Whitney Hogan. "Justin was always endeavoring to be the best person he could be," she said. "He took himself and his work seriously, but in a way that brought people into his orbit. He had a strong moral compass as a student and always made decisions based on his values."

And he never lost sight of the connection between self-improvement and working to improve a community, especially his beloved home of Memphis. McKeen Center Director Sarah Seames had frequent interactions with Pearson during his time as a Bowdoin student.

"One of my strongest takeaways of Justin as a student," she said, "was that he was always thinking about Memphis and home when he was here."