C.J. Petersen is one of 60 applicants selected for the highly prestigious national award
Friday, April 12, 2024

C.J. Petersen likes to joke that he’s “the most nontraditional of nontraditional students.”

“I’m just your average gay, deaf, small-town Iowan,” is how Petersen once described himself on social media. A first-generation Hawkeye and community college transfer, he arrived at Iowa in 2023 as an online student earning a bachelor’s degree in political science while working full-time as communication director for the state auditor—all from the small farm in rural Audubon County where he lives with his husband, Luke. 

Now 33, the former cell phone salesman turned political organizer has won what is widely regarded as the premier graduate scholarship for aspiring public service leaders in the U.S. He is one of just 60 college juniors this year to be named a Truman Scholar and one of 15 UI students to have earned a Truman Scholarship since the program began in 1977

C.J. Petersen
C.J. Petersen

“I was honestly just shocked. This is not something I necessarily thought of for myself,” Petersen says. “I don’t have the pedigree of a scholarship winner—my parents don’t have college degrees. To be able to represent the university in this capacity (as a Truman Scholar) is so meaningful.”

He says mentors at Iowa like political science professor Brian Lai and Kelly Thornburg, director of the office of scholar development, encouraged him to apply for the scholarship and supported him throughout the five-month process—including through intensive interviews. He says the process validated his decision to enroll in a political science program that already stood out for its excellence.

Lai says Petersen’s life experience, his passion for public service, and his ability to connect with people make him stand out from his peers. Petersen’s experiences serving the community and working to promote public policy change on the local, state, and national level make him exceptionally qualified for the Truman Scholarship. 

“He has experienced the lows and highs in his own life and his community, and those experiences fuel his passion for public service,” Lai says. “His unwavering commitment to helping others is fueled by what he has lived through.”

Thornburg says Petersen exemplifies why any student who is interested should apply for awards such as this.

"I know that C.J. initially felt like he wouldn't be a good fit for a national scholarship like the Truman, but from our first meeting I could see that the differences he assumed would work against him were what made him such a strong candidate," Thornburg says. "He is using his own experiences as an Iowan who needed support from both his government and neighbors as he advocates for others who are navigating their own challenges. His choice to do so is what qualifies him for this award."

The Truman Scholar program awards college juniors with exceptional leadership potential and who are committed to careers in public service up to $30,000 for graduate study. Petersen was one of 60 students selected this year from a pool of 709 applicants. Established by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to President Harry S. Truman and national monument to public service, the Truman Scholarship carries the legacy of the 33rd president by supporting and inspiring the next generation of public service leaders.

Petersen says he plans to earn a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Iowa’s highly-regarded School of Planning and Public Affairs and work in rural economic development. One of the most appealing things about the program, he says, is the Iowa Initiative For Sustainable Communities, which pairs students directly with Iowa communities. 

Petersen’s passion for working on rural issues sprung from his experiences growing up in a single-parent home in Atlantic, Iowa, a town of about 7,000 on the western side of the state. Petersen says he was in fourth grade when a state funding formula resulted in the town losing school bus service. When his mom, who has epilepsy, couldn’t drive him, a neighbor stepped in. 

Want to learn more?

For more information about applying to represent the University of Iowa as a 2025 Truman nominee, contact Kelly Thornburg in the Office of Scholar Development at scholar-dev@uiowa.edu.

“That spirit is what reminds me that there’s something special about rural America and Iowa specifically,” he says. “My interests are really about making sure that rural communities are livable and that people have the things that they need, including health care and education. Folks here often feel like people in power don't understand them and don't desire to understand.”

Petersen remains deeply rooted in his rural community, where he and his husband are active members of the Iowa Farmers Union and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He also serves on the board of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a group seeking to mobilize the religious community to become leaders on climate action.

Looking back on the last decade of his life, Petersen says he’s amazed at how far he’s come. Those years included several months at a Nebraska rehab center for treatment after years of struggling with alcohol abuse. Now nearly seven years sober, Petersen says he’s grateful to the counselors who urged him to envision what his life could be. 

I mean, it really does make all of the struggle and the hardship I've been through in my life, I don't want to say worth it, but it validates that I belong in the room just as much as the other professionals in my field.”