Commencement speaker Jonathon Taylor

April 27, 2016
USUAA president and Seawolf Debate champion Jonathon Taylor adds one last accolade on his way out the door. He'll address the graduates as student commencement speaker on Sunday, May 1 (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

USUAA president and Seawolf Debate champion Jonathon Taylor adds one last accolade on his way out the door. He’ll address the graduates as student commencement speaker on Sunday, May 1. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Jonathon Taylor is a fitting selection for Commencement speaker at this weekend’s graduation. After all, he’s been speaking on behalf of his 16,000 classmates for the past year as their student body president.

Jonathon helmed USUAA during a challenging year for the university, but that’s not all. He was also a champion member of Seawolf Debate. And as a student, he excelled academically in multiple departments. And let’s not overlook that he held a full-time job throughout his senior year.

Graduation is the culmination of several unfathomably busy years for Jonathon. Though he’s leaving UAA, its unlikely he’ll slow down for long. “I’m a person who has to stay busy to stay motivated,” he noted, acknowledging, it may take him “a little more to stay busy than most people.”

Speaking for the students

Over the past several years, Jonathon made an impact in class and across campus. He’s was named to the Chancellor’s List every year as he pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science, with minors in communication, economics and journalism. Additionally, he is a three-time recipient of the UAA Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award and his independent research on media portrayals of the trans community was selected as one of the top papers of the 2015 Student Showcase.

Jonathon could have graduated with the class of 2015, but he decided he had more to gain from another year at UAA. “At the end of last year, I felt I needed something a little more concrete,” he said, explaining his decision to add an economics minor. It also provided him an opportunity to remain enrolled so he could serve as student body president. Thankfully, with the bulk of his coursework out of the way, Jonathon could heavily focus on his USUAA position during a tumultuous time at UAA.

When asked if the current budget climate has changed his role as student body president, Jonathon is quick with a definitive reply: “It has.” Students are anxious about the state budget and its effect on their UAA coursework, and throughout the year Jonathon has collected their concerns and shared them with university leadership. He frequently reached out to deans and department heads for answers to student questions, and was often in conversation with the chancellor and his cabinet.

All told, the volunteer role of student body president has at times taken on the focus and demands of a full-time job. And though it was a year of challenging conversations, Jonathon was well prepared thanks to his involvement with Seawolf Debate.

Speaking around the world

Though originally hesitant to dabble in debate, Jonathon has racked up the recognitions since joining UAA’s top-notch team three years ago.

In 2013, Jonathon enrolled in a political science course stacked with Seawolf Debate team members. After much coaxing and prodding from his classmates, he agreed to sign up for the annual Cabin Fever intramural debate tournament (coincidentally, his tournament partner Duke Kahumoku also served as Commencement speaker in Fall 2014). “We made it to semis and I was hooked,” Jonathon said.

He joined Seawolf Debate soon after the intramural tournament, and he’s been rolling ever since. In his first year in the traveling team, he earned top novice speaker at the Seattle University Worlds Debate Championship, where he also won the novice tournament along with partner Johanna Richter. They returned this December and won the whole thing.

A month later, this January, Jonathon and Johanna broke into the elimination rounds of the worldwide debate tournament in Thessaloniki, Greece. That’s no small feat; every team at worlds opens with nine debates over three days, and participants must be ready to argue for or against any number of issues within minutes of learning their topic. 373 international teams entered the nine-round preliminaries, only 48—including Jonathon and Johanna—advanced. “It’s one of the most prestigious things you could ever achieve as a debater,” he said of reaching the elimination rounds. Jonathon and Johanna end their debate careers ranked #33 on the planet.

“Seawolf Debate has been really good for me academically, and also personally,” Jonathon said. “The thing that appeals to me the most is the academic rigor of it. If you’re making public policy decisions—or just voting—you should probably know good reasons why you support something.

“Participating in debate was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

Speaking of the future

On May 1, the audience and 1,327 graduates of the Class of 2016 can hear Jonathon’s oratory skills in action as he addresses his classmates on their responsibility as college graduates.

It will be his final ‘final’ moment of college, and one most graduates don’t experience. “Since spring break, everything has been, ‘Oh, this is significant,’” Jonathon laughed. Sure, every student—including Jonathon—feels a bit of finality when they retrieve their cap and gown from the Bookstore. Jonathon’s final moments just also include big-time bullet points like ‘final testimony before the Board of Regents’ and ‘final national debate tournament.’

So what’s next for this busy and distinguished graduate? Eventually he’d like to attend graduate school in either public relations or public policy. For now, though, he’s definitively taking the next year away from academics.

“To be very honest, I’m looking forward to the break,” he said, “I’ve really enjoyed being here, I’ve enjoyed all the things I’ve been able to do. And if I could go back, I would probably do all of them over again. But…” he trails off, “I am looking forward to having a little more free time.” He acknowledges his friends’ pop culture references usually fly right over his head, since he’s rarely had time for TV or movies.

But that will have to wait for now. Since last spring, Jonathon has worked full-time in tourism and credits his company—Holland America Princess Alaska—with their flexibility as he completed his degree. Now, the summer season is weeks away and Jonathon will spend nearly every day in May training the summer staff.

But, for someone who thrives on being busy, that’s totally okay. Netflix can wait.


Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement
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