OGDEN — Weber State’s student body president has traveled an unlikely path to where he is now. Once homeless, Bret Alexander has just started his first year as a graduate student studying higher education leadership.
He’s also the first openly gay student to be elected student body president at Weber State University.
Alexander’s experience in student leadership throughout his undergraduate years at Weber State influenced his decision to pursue training in higher education, rather than his previous plan to become a lawyer focusing on policy and legislation. Now he’s interested in how colleges are run.
“I’m fascinated about .... the important work I’ve seen done ... with marginalized communities before they enter higher education,” Alexander said, “and being able to recruit, retain and also make sure they complete their degree with the tools and resources we have on campus, where they can find a sense of belonging and engagement like I did.”
Alexander worked two to three jobs throughout college, when he took full course loads while also serving in Weber State’s Student Association, including as the leadership vice president when he was a senior.
He has also been involved in suicide prevention advocacy after the person he was in a relationship with died by suicide shortly before his sophomore year of college.
Alexander graduated in spring 2019 with a degree in political science — and as the university’s first graduate with a new leadership minor. He is the first in his extended family to graduate with a degree from an accredited college.
He describes his life as being influenced by two crucibles.
His dad moved out when he was 3, leaving his mom, who was about 19 at the time, to care for Alexander on her own.
Much later, when Alexander was 16, he made the decision to move out of his mother’s house, living in various places before settling with an older cousin, Jennifer Knibbe, who he has lived with for most of his time in late high school and college.
Alexander says he doesn’t know what his dad looks like, Knibbe said. She tells him to look in the mirror.
“He’s a spitting image of him,” she said.
Alexander’s decision to no longer live with his mother and stepfather was not made lightly.
When he was about 8 years old, because of a variety of factors, Alexander’s mother began using illegal drugs, including methamphetamine. During this period, his family lived in a motel. After that, they lived for about three years in a trailer parked in the driveway of a family member before moving into a duplex.
“Eighth grade hit, and this is kind of where I was really depressed, I was kind of done with life,” Alexander said, “because ... nobody told me to brush my teeth ever. My quality of life was just really not where I wanted it to be.”
He spent time with his cousins, who are part of a large extended family who live in the Ogden area.
During this time, his mom drove him and his sister to the Division of Child and Family Services, or DCFS, and dropped them off, saying she planned to relinquish custody. She changed her mind and returned the next day, Alexander said, but the incident led to a DCFS investigation.
Alexander says that during the time of this investigation, his mom encouraged him to lie to investigators. The investigation did not lead to Alexander and his sister being removed from the household.
“This began a lot of integrity-based decisions,” Alexander said, about being told to lie to investigators. “I felt like my principles were compromised by someone I thought I trusted and loved. (Since eighth grade) I decided to live a very truthful, honest and integrity-driven life.”
By the time he was 16, he decided he needed to leave.
“This is really the pivot for me in my life,” Alexander said. “So I ... found belonging in school. That’s where I put my best efforts and where I really found my safe place ... that’s where I felt like I belonged and was able to connect with other people that didn’t really know my background story or the trauma I’ve experienced in my household and are just there because they genuinely like me as a person. And to me that irreplaceable and just made me feel completely loved.”
This dedication to school led to him graduating from Ogden High School as a senior class officer, choir president and a member of the National Honor Society. With the help of friends and school staff, he applied and received scholarship support at Weber State.
His best friend, Kayleen Leifson, actually convinced him to finally apply to Weber State a couple of weeks before the first semester of his first year started. Despite his accomplishments, his concern about the cost was a barrier.
But his commitment to school, leadership and friends that started in high school is what has carried him through to where he is now.
Knibbe, who has been a significant source of support to Alexander, says she thinks Alexander’s accomplishments are amazing.
His influence is part of why she’s returning to Weber State after 10 years, and time as a single mom, to pursue her bachelor’s degree in social work.
“He definitely was always willing to (help with applying to Weber) — ‘Hey, do you want me to do this? Do you want me to help fill out that?’” Knibbe said, mimicking him. “He kind of lights that fire in you that you can do stuff ... He’s always that happy person that ... can see the light in everything even if you’re having a bad day ... just always following up, following up, following up.”