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Justin Stirewalt: A Dedication to Public Service Runs in the Family

Justin Stirewalt’s grandfather, retired First Sergeant Robert C. Lawson, served in the North Carolina State Highway Patrol for nearly 30 years, from 1973 to 2001. During his first year on the job, Lawson came to the then Institute of Government to train at the 54th North Carolina State Highway Patrol Basic School.

More than 40 years later, Stirewalt is studying under the same roof, of sorts, as his grandfather once did, as an MPA@UNC student. “I’ve got a picture of his class of graduates from the Patrol School program standing in front of Knapp-Sanders, and it’s really humbling to think  that I’m now following in his footsteps,” said Stirewalt.

In addition to continuing his family’s legacy of education at the School, Stirewalt has built a career that mirrors his grandfather’s dedication to public service. Following his graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, he went to work for the Surry County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy sheriff. During nearly a decade of service, he's worked his way up through the ranks to become a detective.

The spectrum of crimes Stirewalt investigates is wide-ranging, covering everything from mailbox tampering to homicide. Regardless of the type of case, however, Stirewalt said that his responsibility remains the same. “It’s my duty to help protect this community,” he said. “And I would never want to do anything to betray the trust of the people I serve—the citizens of Surry County.”

In service of this mission, Stirewalt has often turned to the School’s publications for guidance. “Working in law enforcement really shows you the value of the School,” said Stirewalt. “From North Carolina Crimes to legislative updates, the School of Government has practically been a daily resource for me.”

But Stirewalt felt that the School’s potential to serve and enhance his career could extend beyond its publications. He applied and was accepted into the MPA program, proudly embracing the opportunity to return not only to his alma mater, but also to the institution where his grandfather trained four decades ago.

Since enrolling in the fall of 2016, Stirewalt has found not merely a balance between his career and his coursework, but also a connection between the two. “The courses—particularly on public service leadership and organizational theory—have really exposed me to a broader range of leadership styles,” he said. “I’ve learned how to lead in different ways, and appeal to each of my colleague’s strengths and deficiencies.”

Like his grandfather before him, Stirewalt is striving to be the best public servant he can be for his community. With the help of the MPA program, he believes that lofty goal is well within his reach. “Growing up, I always admired how the other officers respected my grandfather not just for the job he did, but also how he did it,” he said. 

“We only get one chance to build a reputation in public service, and I’m learning the tools to build one my grandfather can be proud of.”

Justin Stirewalt received the 2017 Megan Cornog Memorial Highway Safety Scholarship from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. Read more at the Center's website

This profile was written by Andy Bradshaw and originally appeared in the winter 2018 issue of IMPACT. To view previous issues of IMPACT, visit the UNC MPA website.