CHICAGO – As the middle child in a self-described typical Irish Catholic family of six children, Jacob Petersen has always been a part of something larger than himself.
Maybe that's why, if you add up the accomplishments of the University of Chicago senior in his short time at the College, it all makes sense to Petersen – even if it may seem crazy to everyone else.
Just a few to start:
- Three-year starting pitcher for the Maroons' baseball team
- Set to graduate Saturday with a degree in Public Policy after just three years at UChicago
- After four years as a member of Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), on track to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and enter active duty
And that part about being a part of something greater hasn't changed, either.
"I think our parents, just the way they raised us, they ran a very strict household and really taught us the value of working hard and respecting people and doing something that's a little bit beyond yourself, whatever it might be," Petersen said of his parents, Bob and Molly.
He certainly made an impression on his coach on the baseball field.
"From Day 1, you could tell that he was a great fit and a great representative of not only our program, but also the university, and even the community," UChicago Head Baseball Coach John Fitzgerald said. "He just had that way from a leadership standpoint, to a maturation standpoint, that he just carried himself exactly like you would want to see in a viewbook or a commercial for the university, that's who you wanted to see, you wanted to see Jacob Petersen.
"Add in the fact that with what he went through with his academic course load, that he still had the opportunity to be a significant contributor for us, to be able to excel in that while also taking on an academic course load that no one in their right mind would take, and to be devoted to the mission of what he wants to do with his life (in the Army), he really is a rare, special type of kid and I've truly been better to be involved with him the last three years."
NOT YOUR TYPICAL MILITARY FAMILY
Back to that family of eight. Petersen's parents met as students at Iowa State University – Bob played football and baseball – and Molly worked in the Cyclones' sports information office.
The two eventually married and settled in Aurora, Ill., and started their family of six children – and all six carried on the sports gene. Anna, the oldest at 24, played four years of softball at Northwestern; Ellie, 23, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy after four seasons on the Army volleyball team; Jacob, 22, who started his college career in the ROTC program at Indiana University for a year before transferring to UChicago; Maggie, 20, who like her sister, has two years left on the Army volleyball team; Jens, 18, who is off to attend Xavier (Ohio) University in the fall, played baseball and basketball; and the youngest, Luke (17), has one year left at Metea Valley High School and unsurprisingly, has some college baseball prospects.
"We're all really close to each other in age, so as you can imagine, things were pretty busy growing up," Petersen said of the group. "We were always doing something, running in five different directions.
Petersen also made sure to give his mother all the credit.
"… Mom just runs the show, I don't think anything would really get done without her, she's kind of a local legend – all six of us kids were born in a span of seven years, so there were a lot of little Petersens running around at an early age, so she sort of steered the ship and made sure things got done."
Petersen's interest in the Army, however, didn't necessarily come from any of his past generations of family history. Turns out, it was Ellie who started it all. Recruited first by the head volleyball coach at West Point, she took a visit and loved it, and the rest is history.
"I think the only reason that myself or my younger sister Maggie even considered it was because our older sister Ellie had the courage and the audacity to go for it, and we thought, maybe this would be something we would like," he said.
"… That definitely was my first exposure to (the Army) was seeing my older sister go through it: getting to drop her off for her first day at West Point was pretty exciting, and that was just when I was going into my senior year of high school, when I was still kind of unsure of what I wanted to do in college and down the road as well.
"I've always been drawn to service and to wanting to do something to give back, and I really wasn't sure how that would manifest in my life – so I think when I got to go to West Point and saw my sister doing it, it really kind of sparked that passion and that interest in me, and that's what kind of sent me down that path."
A LEADER ON THE BASEBALL FIELD
Petersen didn't start off a Maroon. Taking advantage of a spot in the well-renowned ROTC program at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., he enrolled there as a freshman to study business.
"I had a little bit of a change of heart shortly into my experience there and I decided to look at my options… what I wanted to study and what I wanted to do later in life changed, and I wanted to be closer to home and I was really missing baseball and a chance to compete at a high level."
Enter UChicago. Despite the lack of credits that were able to transfer, Petersen was accepted into the College and eventually landed on the public policy major, and will also graduate with a minor in astronomy and astrophysics. It wasn't easy, of course. Taking six classes during winter quarter and attending school over the summers were just a few ways Petersen was able to fit in four years of course work into three, and he did it while maintaining "around a 3.6" grade point average.
Oh, and that was on top of early morning ROTC workouts and baseball practices.
"It was challenging at times, but luckily I had a lot of teammates and coaches and army instructors and friends understanding of what I was doing and really went to bat for me and helped me get through it. I was able to take extra courses when I was able to and I made it through, somehow," he said.
Perhaps even more impressive was his ability to achieve success on the diamond. Petersen was a starter on the mound for all three seasons, including a junior campaign when he was named a Second-Team All-Region selection by the American Baseball Coaches Association, compiling an 8-2 record with a 3.99 ERA and 42 strikeouts.
He finished his career as No. 4 in the baseball record books in ERA (3.97) and No. 10 in wins (14).
To Petersen, it was all very much worth it.
"Baseball here, being able to play at this university has been the three most exciting, fun years of my life, and it's something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. Playing baseball growing up, I don't think I really appreciated how much it meant to me – I sort of lost it for a year and truly realized how much it did mean – not just playing, but the early mornings, the practices, being part of a team, and having a team culture.
"And you know, guys, brothers, coaches, that you can rely on and would do anything for you – it's really an experience that has made me a better person and I think it's something I'm going to remember and be proud of the rest of my life."
FUTURE IN THE ARMY
Unlike most of his classmates, Petersen's walk across the stage Saturday morning won't be the only ceremony he will attend that day. In the afternoon, he'll partake with his graduating ROTC members in his commissioning ceremony and leave a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His first assignment of active duty will be as a Cyber Intelligence Officer at Fort Gordon, Ga., where he will be for around nine months before getting assigned to his first unit.
Petersen is committed to active duty for at least four years, but he said he has other interests outside of the Army – but he also won't write off the possibility of being a career officer. At UChicago, he specialized in international economics and wrote his BA thesis on property rights in Haiti.
"I really care about people and about trying to serve in some capacity, so I'm really interested in international development, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, things like that," he said. "So I think maybe down the road, after my time in the Army, that would be something I'd like to look into."
But first, Petersen knows he will have to quickly learn how to be an effective leader when he arrives to direct his first unit.
Fitzgerald doesn't think that will be an issue: he's seen firsthand what kind of effective leader Petersen can be, and has been, for his baseball program.
"He has an ability to genuinely lead people without any kind of pretense or yelling – he led because he outworked people and people wanted to be like him," Fitzgerald said.
"That was a really neat dynamic and made us better as a culture, because he had that effect on them to make them want to work hard… honestly, in my mind, if at any point my well-being is going to be determined by somebody, he is exactly the kind of person I would want to be making the decisions for a collective group for our country."