Each year, Penn Foster takes time to celebrate an exemplary Penn Foster graduate. The Graduate of the Year is selected by student peers and a cross-functional Penn Foster committee. Graduates are encouraged to enter in the contest by submitting an essay about their Penn Foster experience, why graduating is an important milestone in their life, and what their next steps are post-graduation. This year, we could not be more proud to announce the winner, who perfectly exemplifies the grit, determination, and passion that we admire in our students and graduates. Congratulations to our 2016 Graduate of the Year, Omar Haughton! This is his story.

Omar is an Army veteran who sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Haughton's military career began when he enlisted in the California Army National Guard in 2009, where, concurrent with his Guard service, he spent three years with a vertical construction company in Oxnard, CA. While still in the Guard, Haughton deployed to Afghanistan with a Northern California bridging unit.  There he served as a 50cal gunner, and in July 2012, was badly injured in combat by an IED, where he sustained a traumatic brain injury. Omar spent the remainder of 2012 and all of 2013 recuperating from his injuries.

During nearly a two-year rehabilitation process, he discovered Penn Foster College and its Criminal Justice program. He used his Veteran's Administration benefits to begin online classes and earned his degree in Criminal Justice in May 2016. Shortly after graduating, Omra got a job with Passport to Learning, where he works in the organization's Judicially Involved Support Services (JISS) division as a forensic adaptive living skills instructor. He combines his criminal justice knowledge with his personal experience to work with individuals with mild intellectual disabilities who have been recently released from jail. He returned to his original Guard unit in Oxnard in 2014, and joined the Army Reserve in late 2015. He will officially be separated from the military in early 2017 as an E-5 Sergeant.

As a father, Haughton said he dedicates this degree to his daughter. "When she grows older, I want her to be proud that her father is a degree holder and be empowered to go to college herself if she chooses," Haughton said.

Over this past weekend, a few of us from the Penn Foster team had the honor and pleasure to visit Omar and his family at his home outside of Los Angeles, California to celebrate his achievement as Grad of the Year. During our visit, we hosted a graduation party for Omar, his family, friends, and local news, where the Senior Vice President at Penn Foster presented Omar with his Associate Degree and spoke about Omar's accomplishments. Omar's inspiring story of perseverance, selflessness, and determination to achieve his goals left us all in awe. Omar is a true hero and exemplifies everything we could look for in an extraordinary student; we know he'll be successful in his career, as a father, and in life.

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Photo Credit: Erik Sandroski, Penn Foster