The Journey of Justin Bruno
By: Karlyn Sykes
There is rarely a dull moment on Florida A&M University’s campus. At 7:28 p.m. on Tuesday evening a mass email was sent to the study body informing them of the resignation of Student Government Association President Justin Bruno. The news came as shock to many including some within his very cabinet. In an exceptionally articulate letter, Bruno stated the facts on his choice to resign. Among them movements for impeachment, chaos within the branches–in sum, he was he was over it. Before all this unfolded, I had the chance to have an intimate conversation with an optimistic Justin for a feature in The Rebel Issue about his role in FAMU’s politics, battle with mental health and his prospects for the next chapter of his life. Upon hanging up the phone I felt like personally enlightened about Bruno’s true character, our hour long chat humanized him in a way the public eye tends to reject.
I encourage you read it. Not only am I proud of the resulting piece, but because it just may shift your perspective on who former SGA President Justin Bruno was, is and hopes to become in the near future.
Although he may have all the makings of one, Justin Bruno is far from your stereotypical student body president. This might surprise you, but in many ways he is quite average. His favorite sports teams is the Miami Heat–he also favors the Golden State Warriors but rejects the bandwagon title. Blaze Pizza is his spot, his favorite colors are blue and green, he’s a gamer, 2K to be exact, and disclaimer: like many of this generation, he’s not super into politics, he just genuinely likes helping people.
But despite these seemingly “standard” qualities for a 22 year-old male Florida A&M student, there are layers to this guy. Interestingly enough, uncovering those layers is not as difficult as this student body has come to assume. As one would guess, this past year has put Bruno through it, yet he makes it clear that he has not come out on the other side a fundamentally changed man.
“Obviously I feel like I’m the same person, obviously I look a little bit different because my hair wasn’t as long. I can’t say that the events that happened with the whole court fiasco and everything didn’t have an impact, but I don’t think it had as much of an impact as people would assume,” said Bruno.
He continued, “I could imagine someone saying “he got caught up in all that stuff and it pushed him over the edge,” but that’s not what happened. Obviously it was a traumatic situation. I don’t know how any 21 year-old could handle going to court against an entire institution…That experience put me in a place where I had to learn where my strength comes from.”
Before the SGA calamity, Bruno was on a rapid trajectory to leadership at FAMU, serving on the Student Senate during his freshman and sophomore year and then later becoming the student body vice-president. Yet, the blow of gaining the SGA presidency in 2015 and quickly having it taken away was an upset he wasn’t prepared to cope with. Fortunately, out of the experience came an enhanced self-awareness that was unforeseeable.
“What that did was for me was help me turn my attention to God. If that was where I was supposed to be, He would have me there anyway. When that happened I started to pay more attention to Him and His will for my life,” Bruno continued.
Same Justin: not broken, but rather more spiritually connected and free than ever before. In spring of 2016, Bruno and his running mate Devin Harrison finally claimed their seat at the head of student body if by divinity. He then also reclaimed his status as one of the most elusive and talked about students on this campus. Sure he’s SGA president but who is this guy with the groomed afro riding a bike through the quad with a tennis racket on his back? The answer is the same: it’s Justin Bruno, just with bigger hair.
“I’ve always been an advocate for natural hair when it comes to young women. I feel like it’s what God gave you. It’s what naturally happens to your body so I appreciate when you can take what He gave you and make it work. But I had never taken that script for myself,” said Bruno. “I didn’t start just growing my hair out to ‘let myself go,’ that situation put me in a place where I could focus on God more than I have been before.”
His decision to sport the Michael Jackson-esque ‘fro was a conscious one made following the period of self-reflection that ensued after an intense time in his life. He rides a bike not because it matches his aesthetic as a born-again hippie, but because it’s economical and increases his physical activity.
Likewise, in an empowering effort to improve his well-being, he cut pork out of his diet, removed “all-nighter” from his vocabulary and now sports cornrows, a protective measure for his tresses. He’s a lot like most of us, learning more and more about himself everyday and taking the steps to live a cleaner and more intentional life.
While the physical changes in his appearance may outwardly reflect a certain growth, it’s important for Bruno to address the fact that he did not leave this challenging phase of his life unscathed.
“If I take a look through someone else’s perspective, he’s elusive, he’s been through all this stuff, nobody knows where he is, it makes sense that someone might assume, ‘yeah he must be depressed,’” said Bruno. Though hesitant at first to reveal such a personal matter, for Bruno those presumptions do in fact hit closer to home.
“I deal with and have dealt with clinical depression… but it doesn’t rule my life. I’ve dealt with it by the grace of God and with help of my loved ones, my family and my friends.”
Mental health, in the African-American community especially, is among the most misunderstood issues of our time.
As an educated black man, he, too, struggles with the admission and the weight it carries. Yet again, he surprises us. His genuine concern for others supersedes doubt and reveals that he cares far too much about others to conceal a truth that could potentially save another’s life.
Nevertheless, Bruno wants to make one point abundantly clear about his mental health journey. “My appearance, the things that have changed over time are not attached to depression. I want to draw that line and make that clear. The things you have seen that have changed have come from a change of spirit,” he said.
He entered FAMU in the fall of 2013 as a clean cut Engineering scholar from Orlando with the world in his hands and intends to leave in spring of 2019 with an information technology degree, a minor business administration and an even tighter grasp on the world.
In his own right, Bruno is a rebel. One against respectability politics, following the status quo and of course conforming to the image of a manicured, unflawed leader.
“Before I think about being a rebel I think about God. I think about the way he wants me to look and what He wants to my life. I’m a strong believer in being what God wants you to be not America, nor society, nor your surroundings.”
While his time on “The Hill” reflects his deep involvement in the political landscape of FAMU, Bruno is quick to remind people that he too is part of his generation of young people fighting for the futures of other young people. “I’m a rebel against complacency, I’m a rebel against contradiction and I am a rebel against respectability politics because none of that has to do with service.”
It took me two weeks, several DMs exchanged with his chief of staff on Instagram, six messages and three phone calls to track down the most interesting man on campus. Upon settling in for the phone interview at 12:16 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, I was prepared to finally separate fact from fiction on this mysterious character.
In the end, I was awed by how collected, and self-assuring the illusory Justin Bruno really was. Though admittedly indecisive and “long-winded”, at the core he is a highly-spiritual college kid just trying to figure it out like the rest of us. When asked the million dollar question, “what’s next after SGA president?” he was slow to respond and maybe even a bit stuck for a moment. A relatable feeling we’ve all once experience when battered with questions of the future come holiday season.
His answer, of course, relays back to his faith, “I want to leave my heart open to whatever God has next in my life. And that’s not just some careless way to say I’m going to go with the flow.”
Justin, too, is on the search for his own purpose and passion. He’s come further than most in his last year alone, but his journey is far from over.