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DU Senior Goes Above and Beyond in the Name of Health

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Alyssa Hurst

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Alyssa Hurst

Austin Johnson is headed to Stanford Medical School in the fall, but he's taking lessons from DU with him

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Austin Johnson

Good health is easily taken for granted — but not by Austin Johnson.

Growing up in Rye, Colorado, where the population hovers below 200 and the nearest hospital is a 30-minute drive away, he saw the importance of access firsthand. When fevers pulled him away from high school athletic goals, he came to understand how poor health can cripple lives.  

As he shadowed local physicians, including his own family doctor, he saw the power of medicine. In June, the senior biology major graduates from the University of Denver ready to harness that power himself. Already he has acceptance letters from seven of the country’s top medical schools.

“I just really enjoy learning, and I think medical school will be a specialized type of learning that I’m attuned to,” he says. “I think I’m mostly looking forward to applying everything I’ve learned at DU to help people.”

Johnson’s journey at DU started with the Boettcher Scholarship, awarded to the top high school seniors in the state. Since coming to campus, he has participated in the DU Emergency Medical Services Club, Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP), Honors Program, pre-health club and Health Promotion Team, among others. He’s also a registered EMT and volunteers at free clinic as a care coordinator.

But, says biology professor Nancy Lorenzon, Johnson’s long list of accolades and extracurriculars are not mere boxes on a checklist. “Austin approached and completed each of his endeavors as if [they] were the only activity in which he was involved,” she says. “When a student is so accomplished, they can lack the depth and emotional commitment to their activities. That is not at all true for Austin.

Take his time in the Pioneer Leadership Program. While part of the program, he worked with low-income students in Englewood to help them address “toxic stressors” in their lives. “We were able to give them a curriculum called ‘Forward Focus’ where we focused on those non-academic factors that hampered them more than their more affluent peers,” he explains. “It just made me realize that everyone starts from a different point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t connect with them.”

That experience and others, Johnson says, “made me step back and realize how much you have to be emotionally intelligent, self-aware and socially conscious.”

Then there was his study abroad trip to Glasgow, Scotland, during his junior year. He chose Glasgow for its physics program and became the first in his family to get a passport and leave the country. Once there, he got back to work, studying anatomy in a cadaver lab alongside medical students and creating a fitness program as a volunteer at a local service center.

Johnson didn’t just grow academically in Glasgow. “When I first got there I was freaking out,” he says. “But by the end, it was crazy how I just shifted and could handle it. I think that’ll translate into the future where I’m dealing with things like emergency rooms.” He even convinced his family to jump outside their own comfort zones to visit him in Glasgow.

As a student in the Honors Program, Johnson continued his departure from the familiar, plunging into courses in philosophy and public policy. “That was the thing that helped me the most to branch out of my comfort zone,” he says. “I thought I saw medicine as being one-on-one, but then I had these classes like philosophy, where you’re thinking big picture, and hard choices in public policy, where you are looking at these public policy and public health choices that impact all of those relationships.”

Though seven medical schools vied for Johnson, he’s decided Stanford is the program for him. He’ll head there in the fall, armed with a wealth of experience, a solid foundation in the sciences and a lasting support system. “My real x-factor was the support, from the bottom up. My parents told me to do what I love, and I organically developed this love for medicine,” he says. “It was all of the people behind me that brought me forward.”