Scholar alumnus on front lines of New Mexico's battle with coronavirus

Jeff Rice
February 11, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During his second year at Penn State, Neil Jackson visited India as part of a Schreyer Honors College study abroad program, taking classes on globalization and poverty and gaining some new perspective on his potential career path.

Penn State alumnus Neil Jackson
IMAGE: Photo provided by Neil Jackson

“That was the first time that I ever left the United States,” Jackson said. “It was really a formative experience, to say the least. That definitely was a major catalyst for my interest in global health and set me on the path I’ve been on ever since, having an interest in taking care of the underserved.”

After he graduated from Penn State with honors in history in 2008, Jackson lived and worked in several other places around the world before returning to the United States to help an underserved population. He is currently a family physician who has a wide range of responsibilities for the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services (RMCHCS) Family Medicine Residency Program in Gallup, New Mexico.

Jackson spent a year at a Muslim boarding school in Terengganu, Malaysia, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. After deciding to defer his admission to Brown Medical School, he lived with a group of friends he had met at Penn State on a farm in Nicaragua – without electricity or running water – for a year. He then spent part of his medical residency in the Amazon rainforest, part of it in Malawi, and another part in Martinez, California. He also completed a two-year global health and obstetrics fellowship in India and Malawi.

While he was broadening his world view, Jackson was also learning about how to practice medicine in a variety of environments and develop problem-solving skills on varying scales.

“I feel like the sum total of those experiences really rubbed off on me in a lot of bigger-picture ways about how I’m able to deal with uncertainty and adapt to situations and connect with people or see through a lot of the static,” Jackson said, “and that’s really important coming to a place like this, not just with the patient population and the problems they have but also the hospital I’m working at. They’re big-time problems.”

Jackson found his current position through friends from his residency. He does primary care work, rotations on the ICU and medical and surgery floors, and is an obstetrics and women’s health provider. He leads the RMCH’s hospitalist department and is a faculty member for the recently developed family medicine residency program.

The vast majority of the residents of Gallup that come under Jackson’s care are Native Americans, most of those members of the Navajo or Zuni tribes. Those groups have been hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 virus; American Indian communities accounted for 40% of total COVID cases in the state, according to a December article in the New York Times, while accounting for less than 10% of New Mexico’s population. Recruiting full-time staff has been one of the major challenges, but Jackson’s hope is that the residency program will help.

“We’re interviewing for our first class of residents, which is an incredibly exciting thing,” he said. “When you train doctors in an area, they’re much more likely to stick around. The goal, really, is to be training Native American physicians, to take care of Native Americans. There’s a lot of challenge with that for a lot of reasons, but one of the ways we’re trying to do that is having a really robust and explicit focus on Native American health care.”

Jackson sought an opportunity to have a substantial impact and, after his many travels, is in position to do just that.

“I feel like just by the job that I’m doing, I’m able to really do something important in the realm of community service and social justice,” he said. “The Honors College program that sent me to India was the seed that set me on this path in earnest.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

Last Updated April 15, 2021