Staff Focus: Q&A with Justin McKnight

Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Justin McKnight

Justin McKnight moved to La Crosse from central Pennsylvania (after a six-year detour in St. Louis, Mo.) with his partner, Kate, and his two-year-old daughter in the summer of 2012. The move, as he tells it, was exciting—many years of grad school poverty paying off with Kate’s first official faculty position at UW-La Crosse—but also intimidating, as he didn’t have a job or any real connections in Wisconsin.

“This was a big move. I am originally from a tiny town with a single stoplight. We had just resettled in the Pennsylvania college town where we met, and this was a big, unexpected jump back to the Midwest.” McKnight said. “I’ll never forget the 15-hour overnight drive to La Crosse. It was my first time seeing the place, and as we pulled off I-90 all I kept noticing these little yellow flowers all over the side of the road. I knew immediately I’d love it here.”

After settling in for a few years and welcoming a second child, McKnight attended grad school at Viterbo in the mental health counseling program. He also started teaching as an adjunct instructor for career services, psychology, and eventually VUSM 100.

After graduating from Viterbo with his Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling degree, he also taught in the mental health counseling program.

Prior to taking on the role of director of counseling services, McKnight served as a full-time therapist in the La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Facility.


How (and/or why) did you come to be at Viterbo?

When I started my undergraduate degree at Bucknell University in 2000, I was the first member of my immediate family and only the second of maybe 100 members of my extended family to attend college. I saw immediately the opportunities a college experience could provide and knew I wanted to work in higher education, maybe teach, or coach.

Fast forward 13 years later to when I first stepped on the campus of Viterbo to talk with Deb Murray about enrolling in the counseling program. I felt that same excitement and energy here.

In my second semester as a grad student, I went out on a limb and volunteered to help Beth Dolder-Zieke, the recently retired director of career services, give a workshop on how to apply for graduate school.

I spent several years teaching world history in an inner-city private high school in St. Louis, but this was the first time I taught in a college setting. Beth offered me a part-time teaching gig, which turned into many more amazing opportunities.

Viterbo has really defined the last decade of my life in La Crosse—I think turn-of-the-century Justin would be impressed.


What do you love most about working at Viterbo?

It might sound a bit cliché, but I love the people. They’re just really, really good people to work with. I’ve had cheerleaders from the beginning—Emilio Alvarez, Father Conrad, Jane Eddy, Kirsten Gabriel, Bill Bakalars, and Deb Murray have been huge supports for me—but I am getting to know so many new faces, and I legitimately enjoy meeting everyone.

I can’t say enough good things about the staff in the counseling center—they are some of the best co-workers I’ve ever had and make coming to work each day an absolute joy.

Counselors tend to be ridiculously self-aware of our hang-ups, which is often hilarious. We keep each other humble and laughing, even on the hard days.


What inspires you?

My energy wouldn’t typically be described as “excitable”—I’m much more of an internal processor—but I find inspiration and energy from appreciating and admiring the effort other people put into their lives.

When I worked at the detention center, I was awestruck by the kids finding hope and optimism in their darkest hours, reconnecting with their families and making plans for their futures. I see this same process of change happen with my clients at Viterbo, as they overcome obstacle after obstacle in their life—it’s an incredible thing to be a part of!

In a non-work setting I get inspiration from my partner, Kate, and our two awesome kids. I see them do things like rock out at piano and viola, learn how to do handstands and snowboard, or write books and inspire students, and I’m just amazed by these gifted and wonderful people I get to spend my life with.


What advice would you give to students regarding heading out into “the real world”?

I would seriously say: be nice.

Life is so, so much easier when you’re nice. That doesn’t mean be a pushover—then you’re being nice to everyone but yourself. You never know what other people are going through, and yeah—they might make you angry or disappointed, or they might just not get you, but it takes so much effort and energy to be mean.

Be nice! I wish I had learned this much, much earlier, but hey, we’re all on our own journeys here.


Do you have a little-known fun fact about yourself that would surprise students and co-workers?

I always answer this question the same way—I’m not sure what that says about me—but I used to be a very competitive javelin thrower in high school and at university. I was the national champion in the javelin in 1998 and the state champion for Pennsylvania in 1999 and 2000. I was able to put myself through college on a full athletic scholarship.

I also used to coach at Washington University in St. Louis, and several of the athletes I coached broke school records and qualified for nationals.

It feels like another lifetime, so I don’t talk about it much. But Kate likes to break out that knowledge from time to time and embarrass me, so this time I’m beating her to it.


What do others say about you?

Actually, this is really funny. During the Orientation Service Saturday in August, some of the students were talking about me being so nice and so fun (OK, so maybe I’m adding the fun part).

My 9-year-old son was with me, and he overheard them and said, “Oh, you don’t know my dad—he isn’t nice all the time!” He said it with so much seriousness and certainty that it must be true.

So what would others say about me? Apparently, that I’m nice and fun … but not all the time.

Justin McKnight and family