By Jayna Morris | Photography by Scott Beseler | Published May 2020
The Excelsior Award is presented to an outstanding senior student who has overcome great obstacles to achieve his/her academic pursuits. These obstacles could be physical, emotional, financial, age, etc. Student Services sponsors this award.
If there’s anyone on campus who knows about perseverance, it’s Justin Haubner.
Born to a waitress and automotive mechanic, Justin spent most of his childhood living below the poverty line and helping farm tobacco on his family’s land. After graduating high school, Justin joined the Kentucky Army National Guard and completed Basic Combat Training.
The Williamstown, Kentucky, native began his journey at Northern Kentucky University back in 2006. He left after one semester and got back on his feet at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. In 2008, Justin was deployed to Afghanistan, where his team was responsible for finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During his deployment, he survived several IED blasts and vehicular suicide bombings. He was awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds he received in combat.
Justin returned to NKU again after he came home to finish his degree, but he stopped taking classes when his oldest son was born. He chose to work a full-time job and focus on his growing family. In the years that followed, Justin suffered immensely with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was fortunately able to find support through the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Program and found a new purpose in life.
In 2018, Justin quit his full-time job and returned to NKU for good to finish his degree. But his focus wasn’t only on himself. He provided assistance and support for the university’s student-veteran population through the Veterans Resource Station. Outside of school, he served as an advocate for returning service members.
“Justin has continuously navigated the obstacles of not only higher education but those of life,” says Travis Roy, coordinator of NKU’s Veterans Resource Station. “He will prove to be an exceptional member of society and serve as a beacon of hope to those who will face adversity at some point in their life. Justin is a true inspiration, and his story remains incredibly humbling.”
Despite his life’s challenges, Justin isn’t letting anything stop him from growing. He’s the first person in his family to graduate college, and this fall he will join NKU’s Chase College of Law. He hopes to follow his passion and represent veterans suffering the same health conditions he battled.
“It honestly makes me emotional just to think about graduating,” he says. “I come from multiple generations of proud, blue-collar, God-fearing farmers. I probably have Imposter Syndrome because for a long time I didn’t think this would ever be possible. It’s an example to my three children to never give up on following their dreams and that they’re never too old to continue learning.”