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‘Finally Someone Gets Me’: 15-Year-Old Who Struggled with Autism Makes History as the Youngest Person to Graduate from Sam Houston State University

A teenage Black boy is set to make history at one of the state universities in Houston. This fall, he will be the youngest person to earn a degree from that school.

Fifteen-year-old Nehemiah Juniel will be the youngest person to ever graduate from Sam Houston State University.

Nehemiah Juniel: Credit: SHSU

The young scholar will receive his bachelor’s degree in health science from the institution on Saturday, Aug. 6, and while the road has been very long (most people spend 16 years to complete K-12 and undergraduate education), it has not been without sacrifice.

While most kids were playing kickball, he was figuring out complicated math equations and reading books. According to The Huntsville Item, he was knocking out pre-algebra at the age of 5 and received his associate of science degree by 13.

One of six siblings, he and his sister Gabrielle were homeschooled by his parents. His 19-year-old sister is scheduled to graduate also from SHSU this fall.

Corie Juniel, the duo’s mother, said the school was perfect for her children because it accommodated the family’s financial needs to fund the two teen’s matriculation.

She said, “Financial aid spent hours with us to get Nehemiah’s award package worked out. They went the extra mile when speaking with the Federal Student Aid office, and were the most patient, resilient staff we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.” 

She added, “With my husband being a veteran, we used his Hazelwood benefits, and the Veterans Resource Center walked us through the process.”

The school also was perfect because it helped Nehemiah, who is autistic, navigate the school without triggers, according to KXXV.

“The day someone had diagnosed me with autism really tried to explain back to me, the very first thing I said back was ‘finally someone gets me,’ ” said the genius.

His father Raphael Juniel said the family therapist suggested getting him tested, and both he and his wife said it was “the best thing that could have happened for us as parents and for Nehemiah.” 

“Having people understand me as a person, it was the most important thing ever because people would get frustrated with me,” Nehemiah said. “They wouldn’t understand why I had to be so specific about things, why I had anxiety about a lot of things and when I was diagnosed with autism, it clicked for everyone else.”

Corie Juniel said she started seeing the signs when he was around nine years old, saying, “You’d go in his room and cars would be lined up by color, so like dark to light, or the crayon box. He would dump all the crayons out and then reorganize them in the way he felt they should be in the box and those were repetitive behaviors.”

The way Nehemiah sees it, autism enhanced his spirit of curiosity.

“Curiosity would lead to me deconstructing things, trying to figure out how it functions, how things work, and I didn’t have the knowledge to put everything back together. I wasn’t necessarily being deconstructive; it was just having misplaced curiosity,” the soon-to-be-graduate remarked.

When asked what the biggest obstacles were during his academic journey, he answered like most kids his age: paying attention. That was especially true when the work, along his pre-med track to be a cardiologist, was not exciting.

Nehemiah said in an interview with KHOU 11, “The biggest challenge was staying focused. It was especially difficult when the course material was uninteresting or something I already knew.” 

“I often needed encouragement from others to put effort into such work before I put myself back on track again,” he also said. “My professors and teaching assistants were the most positive aspect of my experience at SHSU.”

Medical school is in his future, and he is currently preparing to take the MCAT, his school reveals. The young man has his heart set on being a cardiologist.

“Around the age of eight years old, I decided I wanted to become a surgeon of some sort,” he recalled. “As I grew, I continued to change and specify what kind of career I wanted to pursue. This culminated into my decision to study cardiology.”

While his age and different-ableness has the world excited, even his local NAACP has made arrangements to sit with him. He and his family find the fact that he is graduating more than enough to celebrate, especially in a time when college enrollment is on the downturn.

“He’s a great kid who happens to have autism, who happens to be 15 [and] graduating,” said Raphael Juniel.

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