Mathews Medal Winner Demonstrates Resolve, Commitment to His Education, Military Students
As a Textile Engineering major, military veteran and father to three young children, Justin Rigdon, 27, knows what it means to persevere and adapt. His road to commencement hasn’t been straight nor has it been easy. But the winner of an Alumni Association Mathews Medal, the highest non-academic distinction that a graduating senior can receive, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Coming from a military family, Rigdon looked to enlist following high school graduation. “I was very smart, but I was also very lazy. I didn’t have the discipline for college then,” he said.
But what he did have then and still has today was the desire to challenge himself. “I chose the Marines out of pride. I asked myself ‘What’s the most difficult path I could take?’ It was the Marines,” he said.
Beginning in 2007, he served with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune. From 2008 to 2009, he patrolled Ramadi and trained Iraqi police as an Infantry Assaultman. He received a medical discharge in 2012.
In 2010 and while still a Marine, he began what would become a seven year journey to his bachelor’s degree, starting his studies at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., with thoughts of becoming a physician.
“The three years I spent there taught me about leadership, reminded me what school was, and reintroduced me to the civilian world in an environment that eased the transition. There were many other Marines, people I could relate to,” he said.
After speaking with Wilson College of Textiles professors at an engineering open house, he made the decision to transfer and shift his direction academically. In fall of 2013, he enrolled in NC State University with a very specific goal in mind.
“I was dealing with a disability I incurred in the military and I wanted to make a difference,” said Rigdon, who experienced joint degradation as a result of cumbersome and heavy body armor. His goal: pursue an education that would enable him to improve upon existing body armor and serve his military family.
His time at NC State led him down two roads. The first would take him away from a focus on body armor, but open a new world of opportunity. He discovered textile composites, fiber-reinforced materials where the reinforcement takes the form of a textile fabric (woven, knitted or braided). Composites are known for their unique combination of high strength, low density and fatigue resistance.
Rigdon worked closely with Dr. Philip Bradford, a textile composites expert, and completed undergraduate research with him. Through Bradford, he secured his first internship at Beaufort Composite Technologies as a composite fabricator and technician. That summer internship would end up extending through fall semester. Two other internships would follow, both with the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.
“When I first met Justin, I knew from his prior background and his positive attitude that he had enormous potential to do great things as a student at NC State,” said Bradford, associate professor in the College’s Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science department. “He was one of the few students that I taught that has had the same level of passion for my field of interest, in textile composite materials, and so it has been a great experience for me to help foster his passion through my courses and undergraduate research in my group.”
The second road he took would lead him to fulfill his goal of making a difference for his military family. He became involved with the Student Veterans Association (SVA) at NC State, serving as the organization’s president for the last two years. This position gave him the opportunity to advocate for NC State’s active duty, veteran and ROTC populations, a role he fully embraced.
I wanted to make life better for our veterans and I have had the opportunity through NC State. I may have arrived here thinking I’d do that through armor improvements. But I found a different route.
“There are 600 students who self-identify as veterans at NC State. We need to be reaching these people and letting them know we’re here and there are resources, asking them how we can assist them,” he said. “I had three goals: student success, social involvement and professional networking. Typically, we go to class and we go home. Veterans tend not to interact with other students. If we can just get them involved, they may stay longer.”
During his tenure, Rigdon helped to create a culture where veterans can succeed. He was instrumental in the creation of the new Military and Veteran Resource Center, which opened in January 2017. The center is an on-campus one-stop-shop where military-affiliated students can coordinate services, develop programs and advocate for military and veteran students and families.
“I think it is crucial for there to be a physical space on campus where veterans can gather,” he said.
He also served on the search committee for the director of Military and Veteran Services, helping to bring Army veteran Nicholas Drake to that critical role.
“Justin has had his fingerprint on so many important initiatives focusing on the support and advocacy of our military students and their families,” said Drake. “He consistently sets the example for other student veterans to follow by participating in programs, serving on panel discussions, and staying actively engaged in issues related to his passion of serving others.”
In addition to his role as president of the SVA, Rigdon has been president of the UNC System Student Veterans Council and an active member of NC State’s Military Affairs Committee.
As his official role with the SVA comes to a close, Rigdon is reflective.
“It’s bittersweet. I feel like I’ve done a lot. But not enough. I’d like to find ways to engage alumni who are veterans,” he said. “I wanted to make life better for our veterans and I have had the opportunity through NC State. I may have arrived here thinking I’d do that through armor improvements. But I found a different route.”
Rigdon’s leadership and service has been honored not only with one of four 2017 Mathews Medals, but also with the 2017 Peter R. Lord Textile Engineering and Textile Technology Design Leadership Award, which is voted on by his peers and honors leadership activity and creativity in the Senior Design Program.
With commencement fast approaching, the awards tallying up and his degree nearly in hand, Rigdon says the long journey has been worth it, even when it meant spending weekdays in Raleigh and commuting home to Jacksonville on weekends to be with his wife, Shanna, and their children Niko, 5; Ellie, 2; and Eli, two months.
“I did it all because I have to. I want to give my children every advantage. My goal is to have a career that lets me give my kids opportunities and gets them into the best schools,” he said. “It’s been a long road to this degree. But I don’t like to leave things unfinished.”