Growing up, Justin Black ’18, ’19 and Alexis Lenderman-Black ’17, ’19 faced more than their fair share of hardship. With Alexis becoming a ward of the state at age 13 and Justin entering the foster care system at age nine, the future seemed bleak for both of them. Attending college was far from their minds – that path to success diverged from the expected trajectory of the kids around them with similar stories.
However, their passion for learning and dedication to overcoming the obstacles in their paths led Justin and Alexis to envision a different future for themselves. Both decided to attend Western Michigan University, where they met in the Seita Scholarship program for foster youth. Their stories merged as they began dating and fell in love as college students. Together, they now aim to break the cycle of generational poverty, addiction and unhealthy behaviors by “redefining normal.”
With encouragement from her foster parents and a full scholarship from TFAS and the Ronald Reagan Institute, Alexis attended the Leadership + the American Presidency Capital Semester Program in the fall of 2017. As a TFAS student living, learning and interning in D.C., she was exposed to new adventures that forced her out of her comfort zone.
Alexis made sure to take advantage of everything TFAS had to offer. In addition to classes and her internship, she filled her schedule with networking events and guest lectures in order to absorb all the knowledge she could. For the first time, she considered her own personal leadership philosophy and the legacy she wanted to leave in the world.
Halfway through Alexis’ time in D.C., Justin decided to visit her. He was impressed with the influence TFAS had on his girlfriend in such a short amount of time and, after observing Alexis’ success, realized how much he could benefit from a TFAS program too. He quickly applied and received a full scholarship for the following year’s D.C. Summer Program, where he participated in the Journalism + Communications program track in 2018.
Justin shared that TFAS’s facilitation of cultural exchange, economic education and leadership development helped him gain a new perspective on life.
“The program’s impact is limitless,” he said. “TFAS took the opportunity to help a kid from Detroit understand how the world works from a global perspective.”
As a TFAS student, Justin was inspired by the work he saw other young scholars accomplish. Their success illustrated how he could launch his own professional career by learning and collaborating with others. Aligned with his degree and his experience, Justin jumped at the opportunity to study journalism and communication in D.C. The fast-paced, demanding schedule of a TFAS student allowed him to gain real-world experience through balancing classes and an internship, which propelled him forward in his career.
Shortly after Justin’s D.C. experience, in May 2018, he proposed to Alexis. Because both of them had such great experiences with their first TFAS programs in D.C., they decided to apply for another TFAS program that they could experience together. Justin and Alexis traveled to Hong Kong together in 2019 for TFAS Asia, where they had the chance to explore liberty, democracy, economics, leadership, and new cultures as an engaged couple.
Justin and Alexis value the importance of travel and learning from both peers and professors around the globe. They have traveled to several countries including South Africa and South Korea where they’ve studied about political economics and humanitarianism. Out of all their experiences abroad, their time in the TFAS classroom has been the most rewarding.
“Combined, we have done 13 study abroad programs, and the TFAS Asia program is in our top three,” Alexis explained. “I loved this program.”
During TFAS Asia, Justin remembers launching himself into a debate one afternoon to practice engaging respectfully with other students and understanding their perspectives. With young leaders from all around the world in attendance, interacting with peers with diverse worldviews illustrated the importance of having an open mind and really listening to other angles.
Justin believes that studying abroad with TFAS taught him how to do this, and he says this has helped him become a better American citizen. He hopes that someday, society will grow to reflect the TFAS classroom – a place that allows for open dialogue and civil conversations in the search of truth.
“I wish we could respectfully discuss, or at least attempt to understand, someone else’s angle and how they approach things more often in society,” Justin said.
This idea of seeking civil discourse contributes to Justin and Alexis’ brand – and newly released book – “Redefining Normal: How Two Foster Kids Beat the Odds and Discovered Healing, Happiness and Love.” By acknowledging that everyone has their own perspectives, Justin and Alexis believe they can challenge the standard idea of “normal” and reshape what society looks like.
To Justin and Alexis, their book goes beyond a reflection of their own experiences growing up and their changing ideas of “normal.” They want to share their stories with the world and put forward a thoughtful exchange of ideas and personal experiences, illustrating that no matter one’s background, anyone can experience self-empowerment and joy.
After participating in multiple TFAS programs, Justin and Alexis have built a network of lifelong connections, mentors and friends. Two of Alexis’ TFAS roommates even stood by her side as bridesmaids when she married Justin in the summer of 2020.
In addition to writing and publishing their first book together, the pair has received countless accolades and launched two organizations: “The Scholarship Expert,” a scholarship coaching business designed to help students graduate debt-free; and “ROSE Empowerment Group,” a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities thrive through economic empowerment.
Without scholarship opportunities, neither Justin nor Alexis would have been able to attend TFAS programs. As TFAS students, they were inspired to see how they could learn from people in the U.S. and around the world, and how they could bring their newfound knowledge home to improve their own communities from the ground up.
“Because of the opportunities TFAS provided,” Justin shared, “I’ve been able to have that influence on my family members from bringing my experiences from D.C. and Hong Kong back to local communities to make a true impact.”