CHESTERTOWN, MD—Washington College senior James H. Schelberg has been named to the 2011 USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, an honor bestowed on only 20 undergraduates for their academic and community achievements. Selected from among hundreds of juniors and seniors nominated by their colleges and universities throughout the U.S., Schelberg was judged on criteria that included academic rigor, leadership and intellectual endeavor that benefits society. He received a check for $2,500.
Schelberg, a double major in Humanities and Philosophy who attends Washington College on a Hodson Trust Star Scholarship for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the only First Team member selected from a small liberal-arts college. The other 19 winners represent state universities that include Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and California at Berkeley, or large private universities such as Johns Hopkins, Emory, Cornell and Rice.
“I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of this recognition or more representative of the best qualities this generation of students has to offer the world,” says Washington College president Mitchell B. Reiss. “The entire Washington College community is proud of what this says about Jim Schelberg, and what his experience says about the value of a liberal-arts education in creating a life of meaning and purpose. He embodies the idea of moral courage.”
Schelberg, a U.S. Marine veteran, was twice deployed into combat overseas, first to Iraq (October 2006 to April 2007) and then to Afghanistan (November 2009 to May 2010), where he served as an infantry corporal. He has maintained a 4.0 grade point average each of his semesters at Washington College. He also has been a member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, the College’s flagship academic enrichment program for outstanding scholars; conducted research at the University of Oxford as part of the College’s summer Oxford Research Seminar on Religion, Politics and Culture; taught boxing as founder of the Washington College Mixed Martial Arts Club; and conducted important archival research for the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the Maryland State Archives.
As part of the application for the All-USA College Academic Team, Schelberg wrote about how the two years of humanities classes he took before deploying to Afghanistan helped him become a “more passionate humanitarian and thoughtful warrior. In the bleak landscapes of the Helmand River Valley, ” he continued, “my experiences of loss, tragedy and violence shaped my understanding of the destructive effects of illiteracy and the opportunities to bring social change through education.”
He saw similar opportunities back home, where wasted intellectual potential is such a devastating force among educationally underserved, low-income males, many of whom end up in prisons. In summer of 2011, Schelberg created and launched a prison outreach program called Partners in Philosophy, which offers courses in philosophy, logic and ethics to inmates of Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution. Washington College professors joined him for several of the classes, which ranged from ethical choices in Art History to the teachings of Plato, Buddha and Frederick Douglass. He plans to continue the program this summer.
Those who nominated Schelberg for the All-USA College distinction were pleased but not surprised by the news. Joseph Prud’homme, assistant professor of political science, has worked closely with Schelberg as one of his academic advisors at Washington College. “I can say without a doubt that he is the strongest student I have ever worked with as a college professor, here at Washington College, and earlier at Princeton and Harvard,” Prud’homme wrote in his nominating letter.
Prud’homme describes Schelberg as “a brilliant young man, remarkable for his depth of knowledge, his profound creativity and analytical precision, and his passion for community service—traits of character that are deeply rooted, and which his combat service in Afghanistan has fortified and refined. He has an unswerving commitment to the transformative power of education,” Prud’homme adds, “and the importance of critical and reflective thinking for renewing lives and communities.”
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Steve J. Rose, who supervised Schelberg in Iraq’s Anbar Province, saw him tested under the daily stress of combat conditions and was impressed with the younger Marine’s intelligence, character and courage. He described Schelberg’s enthusiasm for learning new cultures and meeting Iraqis and Afghanis, getting to know the fishermen on the Euphrates or the farmers of the Helmand River Valley. In a situation where it is often impossible to tell innocent civilian from enemy combatant, he wrote, “Jim was the first to shake hands, or to laugh with new foreign friends. His caring and compassion for strangers was obvious, and daily he influenced those around him to make personal connections to the civilians they protected. I have seen him lead with courage and the highest professional conduct while under enemy fire in combat. … Jim has seen firsthand the worst of human behavior and responded with the highest human ideals.”
“Jim is a classic humanist: an intellectual who delves into the complexities and ambiguities of human experience, and ponders the nature and limits of our understanding,” says Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, where Schelberg is a student associate. “He is also an idealist in the best sense, a person who believes that words and ideas have the power to transform lives – and, indeed, entire societies – for the better.”