Student Spotlight: The life of a Truman Scholar

Jacob Shercliffe, a senior and double major in political science and economics, was accepted as a Truman Scholar earlier this year. Shercliffe is one of 62 recipients of the 2017 Truman Scholarship, which was created in 1975 in honor of President Harry S. Truman. Photo credit: Jay Guzman


Cheyenne Mathews is a member of the UAA Seawolf Debate team.

Jacob Shercliffe’s first job was in high school bagging groceries at Carrs; the summer after that he was a pizza boy at Papa Johns. Now Shercliffe, a double major in economics and political science, is heading into his final year of college as a newly minted, nationally recognized Truman Scholar. On his journey from pizza boy to Truman Scholar was debate.

“The one thing I’ve formed my foundation around as a person is knowing how to talk,” Shercliffe said.

Ask any of his mentors and they will you tell you Shercliffe has a talent for articulating his ideas. Steve Johnson, director of the Seawolf Debate program, recruited Shercliffe straight out of high school for UAA’s team, which Shercliffe has been a member of for the past three years.

“I thought that Jacob had a presence well beyond his years,” Johnson said. “He understood how to grab an audience and direct them where he wanted them to go. I was impressed to see this in a high school senior and knew that he had potential to develop this talent even further. He’s proved me right.”

Another one of his mentors, political science professor James Muller, worked closely with Shercliffe in his Truman Scholar application. In the process of applying for the award, Muller said he familiarized himself with Shercliffe’s character, and he describes Shercliffe as humorous, well-read and talented at public speaking.

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“He’s very self critical and modest,” Muller said. “He doesn’t have a kind of false modesty of somebody who is just pretending that he has a lower opinion of himself than he really does, nor does he have a very low opinion of himself that keeps him from trying hard or trying to improve himself. He seems to compare himself to a very high standard of what a human being could be and therefore naturally, at his age or at any age, he falls short of that. He knows that he he has a ways to go.”

While Shercliffe might compare himself to a high standard, he himself has set the bar high for many UAA students. Shercliffe is very involved on campus; he is currently serving on a Title IX committee, he has worked as an assistant for the Green Fee Board, and he was the Public Relations Director at USUAA. Outside all of these jobs, Shercliffe lists the two activities he is most passionate about as competitive debate and Model United Nations. By all accounts Shercliffe is excelling in both activities; he was an octofinalist at the U.S. Universities Debating Championship in Denver this year and he is currently serving as the Alaska Model United Nations Secretary-General. Shercliffe said his desire to be involved on campus boiled down to three big motivators.

“I think somebody needs to do it, and if I can do a good job and I have the time to do it, part of my responsibility as a person is to give back,” Shercliffe said. “The second reason is they open up a lot of opportunities.”

Some of these opportunities include traveling around the world with the debate team and getting to coach middle school students, high school students, and even local candidates on public speaking.

“The last reason is sometimes you just get roped into them, and I never really figured out how to say no until I was a sophomore,” Shercliffe said.

While he thinks he’s better at saying no, Shercliffe is still always willing to help fellow students. In his interview he added that anyone interested in applying for the Truman Scholarship should not be afraid to reach out to him and seek his advice on the application. Muller said this attitude is typical from Shercliffe.

“He’s very smart, he’s already accomplished, he’s shown his ability to be a leader in a variety of ways, both on the debate team and in the initiative and enterprise he’s used in the public service activities that he’s already undertaken,” Muller said. “In his case, though he has a variety of things he’s been busy in…his public service is especially passing on the excitement and the skills he’s developed in debating to younger students through helping with students in high school and even junior high or middle school. And that’s been a pretty serious and longstanding activity on his part.”

Shercliffe has been on the Chancellor’s List or Dean’s List since he enrolled at UAA, but it’s not just his high grade point average that makes him stand out among his peers. Johnson said Shercliffe’s enthusiasm and willingness to work hard make him a role model to other members of the Debate team.

“I’m most proud of Jacob’s willingness to go above and beyond for the benefit of the Seawolf Debate Program and debating in general,” Johnson said. “Whether volunteering his time to coach at an area middle school or arranging additional, optional practice debates, Jacob is a natural leader who backs up his professed passion for debating with the hard work that provides others access to its benefits.”

Shercliffe plans to attend graduate school, that is the purpose of the Truman Scholarship, but he will take some time away from school before he pursues his masters of public affairs, which he hopes to receive from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

“It’s really important, at least for me, to spend some time getting real world experience, and learning about myself, and learning about the world and trying to give back,” Shercliffe said. “One of the things about being 20 is that my whole life has been made up of being a student, and I’m pretty good at being a student now, but I don’t know what it is like to be a person.”

Shercliffe said he is still figuring out exactly what career he wants, but his main goal is to become the bridge between academia and politics so that the nation’s leaders know what the nation’s academics know by using Shercliffe – the middleman who can synthesize that information.

Long before Shercliffe was born, Harry Truman was recorded talking about the kind of person Shercliffe has a reputation for being. Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

If you would like to recognize Shercliffe for his accomplishments, or if you want advice about the Truman Scholarship, Shercliffe will be on campus for his senior year, and he has a hard time saying no.