This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Only 750 miles separate Cambridge, Mass., from Jacob Scherba’s hometown in the heartland, but there were times when it felt like a million miles. Hartland, Mich., is “a pretty rural, conservative” township where people’s attitudes feel similar and politics aren’t talked about much, because “everyone just assumes” you share their views, Scherba said.
As the first in his high school to be accepted by Harvard, Scherba’s decision to come here to study biomedical engineering raised eyebrows among his classmates and even some advisers, he says, since the University of Michigan is the traditional destination for the area’s best students. “One person from my church, the last thing he said to me was, “Get in, get your degree, and get out before those liberals change you.’”
Scherba, who will get that degree this week, admits he arrived in Cambridge with a distorted idea of what life at Harvard would be like.
“I think I had a very caricatured perspective on it because I’d never known anyone who’d gone there. I thought it would be a very academic, formal institution and … I would do all my learning from the professors. And what I found is, while there are some absolutely incredible professors here, most of the learning that I’ve done has been from my peers,” he said.
“There’s an incredible diversity of talents and perspectives and backgrounds that creates a richness that I was able to learn from. I grew up in a very homogeneous community, so that was very different and overwhelming at first,” he said. “I think that’s probably one of the most humbling things that I got here, was how incredible my classmates are.”
But it all almost didn’t happen.
Just weeks into his first semester, Scherba was walking back from crew practice when he went into cardiac arrest. He spent the next year in and out of Massachusetts General Hospital as doctors worked to diagnose the problem. But he was determined not to let it define or derail his freshman year.
“I had this incredible opportunity in front of me, I didn’t want to give it up. I was excited to be here. So, I would be hooked up to the hospital’s Wi-Fi trying to get work done and I was adamant that I would not take an extension on anything because I didn’t want that to be used as a reason to say, ‘You’re behind on work, you need to take a leave of absence,’” he said.