The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Nontraditional UI student awarded $30,000 Truman Scholarship

C.J. Petersen, a nontraditional University of Iowa student, was awarded the scholarship to help fund his graduate studies.
Photo contributed by C.J. Peterson

One University of Iowa scholarship recipient wants others to know that there is a path for everyone to higher education opportunities through personal growth.

C.J. Petersen, 33, is a nontraditional third-year transfer student who was awarded the nationally recognized $30,000 Truman Scholarship. Fifteen UI students have received the Truman Scholarship since the program started in 1977.

“I wish that other people like me had the same pathways and opportunities out of poverty and into career success that I’ve had,” Petersen said.

Petersen, who is from the small town of Atlantic, Iowa, said he would tell his younger self to keep going and trust the process because life will work out the way it needs to.

His path to secondary education was a unique one, he shared.

At 27 years old, Petersen said he went to a rehab center for alcoholism and substance use. In 2021, he decided to go back to school. He graduated from Des Moines Community College in 2023 and then transferred to the UI in 2023.

Petersen, who is now seven years sober, said he chose the UI because he wanted to learn from some of the best in the field.

“I chose Iowa because the political science department is known for its rigor and excellence,” he said.

According to Iowa Now, out of a pool of 709 applicants, Petersen is one of 60 students to receive the award. The Truman Scholarship is a graduate scholarship for students interested in public service. The scholarship provides $30,000 toward the graduate school of the scholar’s choice, according to the Harry S. Truman Foundation.

Petersen said the process for the scholarship was very intensive and consisted of ten essay questions as well as a policy proposal.

“It’s writing intensive, which is kind of daunting and scary at first but being challenged in the way that the Truman Scholarship helped me prepare and I think about my future in a way that I had not previously,” Petersen said.

The scholarship also provides awardees with extensive programming and mentorship opportunities, direct hiring authority with the federal government, and the ability to apply for additional matching funds with graduate school partners.

Petersen currently works as the press secretary of the State Auditor’s Office and learned about the scholarship through his boss, State Auditor Rob Sand, who was also a Truman Scholarship winner, in a unique way.

“I was moving a table in order to get ready for a press conference that we were having in the state capitol, and I knocked over a bunch of pictures and frames. As I was picking them up, I picked one up that said ‘the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation’ and it was my boss,’” Petersen said.

Petersen then researched the scholarship and approached the Director of UI’s Office of Scholar Development, Kelly Thornburg, to learn more. Petersen said she was very encouraging.

Thornburg described Petersen as “irrepressible” and a very hard-working person. Thornburg met regularly with Petersen from September 2023 to late March.

“Over the course of seven months, we worked together to explore graduate school options, and try out new ways to share the complex experiences that shaped who he is as a person and a public servant,” Thornburg said.

Similarly, Political Science Professor Brian Lai, who wrote Petersen a letter of recommendation for the application process, also commented on Petersen’s character, highlighting his perseverance.

RELATED: 33-year-old UI transfer student lives in dorms, finds community.

“He is a natural fit for this award, so my role was just to describe why he is an ideal candidate. C.J.’s experiences and interests in public service exemplifies the Truman Scholarship criteria,” Lai said.

Petersen said he appreciated both Thornburg and Lai for seeing the value in a nontraditional experience for an opportunity usually dominated by students who have the traditional pathway.

He also highlighted the importance of his background, wanting to share the fact that though his story is unique, it is a story that many other people still relate to or have gone through a similar experience.

“My parents are divorced. I grew up kind of in a single-parent household,” Petersen said. “We didn’t have a lot, but I always felt like I could dream big or achieve something someday. I did one year of community college and then ended up finding out that I liked drinking a lot.”

Petersen also discussed his post-grad plans, as the scholarship is meant for graduate studies.

“I’m currently interested in the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, which is something that students in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program can partake in, at the School of Planning and Public Affairs at the university,” Petersen said.

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