Mercer Bear caught between music and medicine
March 17, 2016
Justis Ward is known around the campus of Mercer University for his beautiful, angelic voice. On any given day during the spring, you may hear his voice drifting through the warm air as he performs the national anthem at a lacrosse game. Or, in the winter months, you might encounter him belting out the national anthem at a Mercer basketball game.
The mastery with which he performs may seem innate and seamless, but he has not always sung in front of crowds with such ease.
As a middle school student, Ward experienced terrible stage fright.
It came to a crescendo when he was in the seventh grade.
“When I was 12, my grandmother died of colon cancer,” Ward said.
While on her deathbed, his grandmother asked him to sing for her. Although he felt comfortable singing in front of his family at that age, he still had horrible stage fright when faced with strangers.
“So, she was on her deathbed and asked me to sing for her. And I was about to do it,” Ward said. “But then the nurse walked in, and I froze. I just couldn’t do it in front of a stranger.”
Ward recalls that his grandmother asked him to sing for her twice more, but having a presence in the room that was not a family member made it impossible for him to sing.
“So I ended up passing that moment up,” he said. “She died a little bit later, and that was it. That hit home for me. She was very close to me, but I really just couldn’t sing in front of a stranger.”
Ward was torn up — both by his grandmother’s death and by his inability to heed her very last request in life.
“I cried for a long time knowing that I didn’t sing for her in that moment,” he said.
Luckily, his mother knew just what to say to him at the time. On the car ride home from the hospital, Ward recalls his mother telling him that even though his grandmother had died, she could still hear him sing.
“Now, when I’m heading out onto the stage and I get nervous, I think about that,” Ward said. “If I can’t sing for these strangers, I can at least sing for her and for God.”
Since then, Ward has given some notable performances. In February he performed at Jit Jams, an intimate performance at Jittery Joe’s coffee shop in Mercer Village.
His mother is also musically inclined. After releasing her first contemporary Christian album five years ago, she asked Ward to perform with her during a few concerts. Ward said that he relished the opportunity and now mostly sings in the same genre as his mother.
Ward said that these days, as soon as he takes hold of the microphone, his fear dissipates.
“I still get incredibly nervous, and my heart pounds like crazy,” he said. “I legitimately feel my heart beating in my throat. But I think it’s more excitement and good nerves, not bad nerves.”
After graduating from Mercer’s undergraduate program as a biochemistry and molecular biology double major on the pre-medicine track, Ward said that he knows that he will be met with a tough decision.
“As I become more and more comfortable with my voice and people tell me to tryout for American Idol and The Voice, I encounter a really big fork in the road,” he said.
His success as a student has landed him on both the President’s and the Dean’s Lists multiple times at Mercer. In addition, he is the president of Alpha Epsilon Delta, Mercer’s chapter of the pre-health honor society. Ward has also been recognized as an Outstanding Chemistry Student for his achievement in his general chemistry class, and he said that he aspires to help other people as a doctor some day.
But, he doesn’t want to give up the possibility of living his life as a full-time singer.
“You can’t really sell out to either a medical or a singing career and do both,” he said. “I could be a singing doctor and bust my guitar out to perform for a patient who’s nervous about getting a shot, but I’ve always seen my music as being worth more than that. I want to take it further than that.”
As the praise and worship leader at his church, Kingdom Life in Macon, Ward said that he feels he gets his fair share of music these days. Now, he wants to take his interest in medicine a step further.
The last few summers, Ward has been taking classes to fill the demands of both the pre-medicine track and his two majors. He has also been shadowing doctors in different fields, getting a taste of the different practices and preparing for his potential career in the medical field.
Carol Bokros, who has known Ward since his freshmen year when he was just an affiliate of Alpha Epsilon Delta, has high praise for her student.
“Justis is willing to accept his gifts and use them without fear,” Bokros said.
She also said that she admires his humility.
“In spite of being very intelligent, talented and capable, he is friendly and welcoming to everyone he works [and plays] with, regardless of skill level,” she said.
This summer, Ward is going to Cambodia with Mercer on Mission as an undergraduate assistant to the medical students on the trip. He said that he hopes the trip will give him a sense of what he wants to do with his future.
“I know that I love helping people and sharing my love, but I’m still not sure if medicine is the right avenue for that,” Ward said. “I’m hoping this trip gives me some insight about what I want to do with my life.”
One thing Ward is certain about, though, is that he loves meeting new people and sharing himself with others.
“When it comes to academics and my music — even though I’m passionate about those things in and of themselves — the reason I’m so passionate about them is because it allows me to share a little piece of myself through song or through meeting people in my classes,” he said.
Avery Braxton, one of Ward’s friends, had high praise for his former mentor through the Minority Mentor Program.
“Justis is a phenomenal person,” Braxton said. “Every time I see him he’s always interested in what I’m up to, how I’m doing and if I need anything. I’ve never heard a negative word come out of his mouth about anyone, and you can tell he has a genuine heart for people and for God. Justis is a friend to any and everyone. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.”
Ward said that his proudest moment since coming to Mercer was when he first performed the national anthem at a men’s basketball game during his freshman year.
“I was definitely nervous about how it was going to be received,” Ward said. “I had sung at lacrosse games and at soccer games, but those have less people. And they’re outside, so not everyone can really see you. But in Hawkins Arena, they turn all the lights off and put a spotlight on you. And you’re broadcast to the entire crowd on the Jumbotron.”
Despite his nerves, Ward said his performance was well received by the crowd that night.
“I remember singing it, and when I finished, there was an eruption from the fans. It was fantastic. Walking off, I was trying to keep my composure and stay cool, but I couldn’t help but smile.”
Walking back through the bleachers, countless fans stopped Ward to congratulate him on his performance.
“I came to Mercer for academics, but it’s little things like that that allow you to see a different side of who you are and the community that you’re in,” Ward said.