Alumnus Named Year’s Standout African-American College Writer

The Hurston/Wright Foundation awarded Justin Campbell (‘09) for penning a Jazz-Age tale

Dec. 20, 2013 By Trevor Gerdes

This April, alumnus Justin Campbell ('09) received a surprising email that confirmed his talent as a writer.

“I thought it was a prank at first,” said Campbell. “What are the chances of me winning?”


Months after sending the Hurston/Wright Foundation part of his novella about an African-American Southerner’s experience in Jazz-Age Harlem, Campbell was told he was the winner of the foundation’s annual Award for College Writers. He, his wife Kaitlyn (Rohrbach, ‘07) and his infant son flew out to Washington, D.C. in October to accept the award and find his best networking opportunity yet.

Since receiving his bachelor’s degree in humanities at Biola, Campbell has progressed in graduate studies, taught English, written for a blog and published stories in literary journals. The Hurston/Wright award, though, was a unique and satisfying commendation.


“That was an affirming moment as a writer for me,” said Campbell. “I had been published, but it was my first kind of big affirmation moment, saying, ‘You do have talent; keep fostering it, keep working on it, this isn’t just a pipe dream — it still may be a pipe dream, but you shouldn’t give it up. Don’t give up yet.’”


By traveling to Washington, D.C. as one of the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s big winners this year, Campbell was able to meet respected African-American writers like Bernice McFadden and Pulitzer Prize winners Edward P. Jones and Isabel Wilkerson. Along with such “heavy hitting” authors, he also met people who have “published a book or two" — shorter term role models for his career. He even met a publishing house editor who expressed interest in meeting again.


"Those kind of opportunities don’t just fall out of the sky," Campbell said.


Choosing to Study Stories

Campbell's first college pursuit was philosophy, however, to him, stories were better company than mechanical arguments. He realized studies should be more of a pleasure. That spring he switched to humanities, selecting an English emphasis.


Campbell wrote stories in his early youth, imagining Indiana Jones discovering Eden or crafting a sequel for Cinderella.


"Those are kind of the questions I was always asking as a kid," said Campbell. "I kind of stopped [writing], and then I realized that it was what I love doing and picked it back up in college."


After refocusing on writing in college, Campbell needed validation.


“I still was kind of on the fence with my own abilities,” he said, recalling motivational professors who helped by commending his writing, offering office hours and suggesting graduate school.


Now Campbell is married and nearing a master’s degree in literature, studying and working as a graduate teaching fellow at Loyola Marymount University. Amid his ambitions to build a writing portfolio, he is also content and appreciative, leading introductory English classes.


“I think a lot of my energy to write comes from the energy that I get from teaching and the fact that I love working with college students, and so I don’t know if I could have one without the other necessarily,” he said. “I think having to leave the house and interact with the world in that way helps my writing as opposed to hurting it. And it pays me, so that’s also a nice addition.”


Since he feels it fuses so well with his writing, Campbell does not want to stop teaching after completing his current graduate program. Also, after graduating in the spring he plans to seek a third degree—another master’s, or even a doctorate, involving creative writing.


Campbell’s Jazz-Age novella, “Sitting on the Knees of Gods,” is not yet published, but meanwhile he is happy with new stories. While he has not written more historical fiction, his novella’s themes of identity and openness — “What things do we hide because we don’t think we’ll be accepted?” — keep finding a way into Campbell’s stories.


“I love writing,” said Campbell. “I just want to keep writing, and I hope people will want to keep reading my work.”


Written by Trevor Gerdes, Media Relations Intern. For more information, contact Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Specialist, at 562.777.4061 or


  • Jaime Yruegaz Jan. 10, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    Congratulations Justin! What an inspiration you are to all of us who may be still wondering about their God-given gifts. Keep nurturing your gift to write; and go out and inspire the world!

  • Candice Jan. 16, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    Go Jus!! That's my cousin! ;)

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