Forging a Unique Path: Dream Award Scholar Jake Neill

Forging a Unique Path: Dream Award Scholar Jake Neill

By Pam Carlson

At age 14, Jake Neill’s life was changed forever.

Jake noticed that a girl in his class was isolating herself and seemed lonely. “I just knew something was off – she needed help,” Jake said. He reached out to her and took time to listen to her about her feelings. Then, one day she came to school and Jake noticed cuts on her arms.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Jake said. He went to the school counselor and asked for help. She guided him through it.

“Having this discussion was difficult. I was only 14!” Jake said. “I told her, ‘I see you are struggling, you don’t have to walk alone. You deserve to be happy.’ Through that, she got the help she needed. That happened six years ago and her mental health is a lot better now – not perfect, but I’m not worried about her trying to kill herself.”

When a second friend expressed similar thoughts, Jake again connected her with help—and the experience of almost losing two friends to suicide inspired him to begin researching the psychological challenges teens face.

As a student at Health Careers High School, a magnet school in San Antonio for students interested in pursuing careers in health professions, Jake had unique opportunities to pursue his new calling. As a sophomore, he was matched with a mentor from the University of Texas Long School of Medicine, who  invited him to work with him on a project researching teen mental health.

Jake learned about writing grant proposals to support the research, and the team received a $5,000 grant. He also played a key role in crafting research questions to get authentic data. It was one of the first times that research questions were developed by teens for teens.

The field took notice of the research project. Jake and his mentor were invited to speak at the American Psychiatric Association Conference in 2020; at the American-Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Conference in 2022; and at the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture Conference in 2022.

“We just got word that our work will be published in a medical journal too,” he said.

While Jake was taking steps toward his future career, he also faced significant responsibilities at home. His parents got divorced during his freshman year, and Jake took on a big role in helping with his two younger brothers and sister. He often made dinner and helped his siblings with their homework.

“Mom had been a stay-at-home mom,” Jake said. “It was a big adjustment.”

Then his mother lost her teaching position. Jake worked long shifts to help supplement her loss of income, working as a certified pharmacy technician and a medication technician at an assisted living facility.

“The older population are my people,” he says. “I have a very old soul. Honestly, I get along better with them than my own people. They improve my life so much.”’

“I am a relatively anxious person,” Jake went on. “While I struggle with anxiety, it doesn’t stop me from moving forward. There was no money for therapy, so I just went to the school counselor for someone to talk to. I had the mentality that I needed to hold the family together, to the extent I was burning out.”

Receiving the Scholarship America Dream Award has “granted me the privilege of focusing on my academics instead of working so much,” Jake—a 4.0 student at Abilene Christian University— said. “I have the grades, I have the determination and I have the commitment. With this generous award, my goals are made more attainable.”

Now a junior at Abilene Christian University, Jake’s interests have broadened. He took an architecture class and realized he really wanted a career that combined hands-on work with research. A college counselor encouraged him to shadow a dentist.

“I could never have predicted that I would be interested in dentistry,” he said, noting it brings together all his interests – psychology in terms of alleviating dental anxiety, the artistic and technical hands on-work of dental surgery, and helping people, while leaving time for family life.

“My journey has not been linear. I would never had made it to dentistry if I didn’t follow a twisty path. It’s ok to change your mind.”

“Worrying doesn’t add another day to your life, today has enough worry in itself,” Jake said, paraphrasing the Bible verses Luke 12:25-26. And his advice to his younger self? “Jake, chill!”

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