MCC student veteran Joshua Gray wins one of 20 spots nationally on All-USA team

MCC-Blue River student Joshua Gray, a Marine Corps veteran, is studying engineering so he can develop robotic prostheses for wounded military personnel and others.

Metropolitan Community College student and military veteran Joshua Gray has been named one of 20 members of the 2018 All-USA Academic Team, an honor that includes a $5,000 scholarship.

Gray, a student at the MCC-Blue River campus in Independence, was also named a 2018 New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar representing Missouri. That honor comes with a $2,250 scholarship. The “transfer” in the name indicates that Gray plans to attend a four-year college or university after completing his studies at MCC.

Both scholarship programs, which recognize outstanding students at two-year colleges, are affiliated with the international academic honor society Phi Theta Kappa. Gray is president of the PTK chapter at Blue River.

“We were thrilled to get the news and so excited for Joshua,” says MCC Chancellor Dr. Kimberly Beatty. “The All-USA Academic Team is a very prestigious honor, the top of the mountain for community college students across the country.”

Gray, 26, of Independence, plans to finish his MCC associate in engineering degree in May 2019. After that, his dream is to attend MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When Blue River PTK advisors Cheryl Winter and Dee Mathison informed Gray about his scholarship wins, “they were practically doing somersaults,” he remembers.

As for him, “I haven’t wrapped my mind around the scope and magnitude of it yet.”

Gray is MCC-Blue River’s second New Century Scholar in three years. In 2016, Aubrey Kent received the best-in-Missouri honor. And this year, Blue River boasts another PTK-affiliated scholarship winner: Monica Fritchey was named one of 150 members (three per state) of the Coca-Cola Academic Team. She is the bronze winner for Missouri.

A former ‘knucklehead’

Gray was born in Kansas City but left here at age 3. He spent his childhood as a “nomad” — his dad was and is a U.S. Navy pilot (now living in Italy).

He attended four high schools, graduating in 2010 from Leonardtown High School in Maryland.

A volunteer firefighter in high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at 19 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, as a field artillery cannoneer. He was deployed to Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan, from October 2011 to May 2012 as minesweeper and point man of a rifle company.  Upon returning from Afghanistan, he continued working as a range coach until he left the military in 2014.

He then returned to the Kansas City area and spent a year working two full-time jobs, one as a security guard, one at Home Depot.

He enrolled at MCC-Blue River in the fall of 2015. He’d heard that for adult learners, a community college is a good way to transition back into education.

“Community college is a more accommodating environment for someone who’s going back to school,” he says. “And it’s more affordable. You’re paying for the same education — it’s just less money.”

He says he was a “knucklehead” in high school. As a student then he “didn’t really pay attention.”

At MCC, he tested into developmental math classes but learned the material quickly. During his first year here, he realized “I’m actually good at this whole school thing.”

Gray would ultimately like to earn a combination Ph.D. and M.D.

Gray’s worth ethic and drive are impressive, MCC-Blue River math instructor George Green says.

“His goal was to have a perfect score on every assignment,” Green says. “He was the first student who averaged between 98 percent and 100 percent on every assignment in my class. If his score was not 100 percent, he always wanted to know why it was not.”

Gray had high expectations for himself when he arrived at Blue River, but “what’s still amazing to me is that he is just as focused today as he was then.”

For his wounded brothers

He decided on a career while he was in Afghanistan.

“We got shot at every single day,” Gray says. “It was actually hard to sleep when I got back because there weren’t gunshots.”

In Afghanistan a 40-pound tube of explosives and motorcycle parts blew off both legs and an arm of his platoon leader, who did not survive. Gray had been there less than a month.

A buddy would suffer a traumatic brain injury from a blast. Another would die. And on and on.

Gray’s original plan was to join the special forces to work in counterintelligence. But his brothers in arms — used to hearing him talk philosophy, physics, politics, whatever — joked that he was too smart for the Marine Corps.

Eventually, Gray decided “I could help my buddies a lot more out here than in there.”

How? By studying biomedical engineering and developing robotic prostheses for not only wounded soldiers but anyone else who needs one.

Around 2012, he’d read a magazine article about prostheses. At the time, not enough researchers were working on them. So Gray decided that would be his mission, to give people “suffering from physical disabilities a second chance at life through robotic limbs, prosthetic pancreases and anything else that biomedical engineering can help fix.”

Eventually he’d like to start his own research and development company.

When Gray is not working (he’s still a full-time security guard), in class or studying, he’s perfecting his skills in Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The martial arts started out as a therapeutic activity for him.

“When I first got out I was feral, for lack of a better word. I still had a lot of adrenaline going through me.” He had to “bleed out the extra aggression.”

Now he does it to keep his body honed. Lifts weights, too.

He is also a writer. His short story “Firewater” will be published in Nota Bene, a Phi Theta Kappa literary journal. He’s at work on a sequel story.

Gray’s schedule does not, as you might guess, allow a lot of time for sleep.

“We only get a finite amount of time on this ball of mud,” he says. “I plan on making the most of it.”


Phi Theta Kappa members nominated by their colleges are considered for several state and national scholarship opportunities, which are awarded based on one extensive application submitted in the fall. This year, more than 2,000 students were nominated from more than 1,600 college campuses across the country.

All‐USA Academic Team members were selected for their outstanding intellectual achievement, leadership, and community and campus engagement.

New Century Transfer Pathway Scholars are selected based on their academic accomplishments, leadership activities, and how well they extend their intellectual talents beyond the classroom. The top-scoring transfer student in each state is named the New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar. Each state’s top-scoring workforce student — with plans to get a job after earning an associate degree or certificate — becomes the New Century Workforce Pathway Scholar. The workforce honor is new this year.

The All‐USA Academic Team is sponsored by Follett Higher Education Group, with additional
support provided by Phi Theta Kappa and the American Association of Community Colleges

The New Century Program is sponsored by the Coca‐Cola Foundation, the Coca‐Cola
Scholars Foundation, Phi Theta Kappa and the AACC.

The New Century Transfer Pathway Scholars and All-USA Academic Team will be recognized at PTK’s Presidents Breakfast in Dallas, Texas, on April 30 during the AACC national convention.

Last fall, Joshua Gray and fellow Blue River student Eli Salazar were named Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholars, an honor that came  with a $1,000 scholarship. Of 200 Coca-Cola scholarships awarded to Phi Theta Kappa members across the country, 25 were specifically for veterans or active members of the military.