With all the talk of HISD’s failures, Jelani Deajon-Jackson is exhibit B (for Black) that greatness abounds from the school district.
In late July, Deajon-Jackson, an alum of HISD’s Parker Elementary, Lanier Middle School and DeBakey High School, began his journey as a medical student at Harvard University. Just as impressive is the fact that he was accepted into 14 of the nation’s top medical schools before choosing the Ivy League school in Boston as his new academic home.
In 2017 Deajon-Jackson became HISD’s only Black National Merit Scholar before heading to Washington University in St. Louis where he graduated in 2021 Summa Cum Laude with a degree in biology with a neuroscience focus.
Most recently Deajon-Jackson was busy working as a clinical research associate at the Yale School of Medicine. He was then selected to share that research with other current and aspiring medical professionals at the American Diabetes Association’s 2022 and 2023 national conferences.
The Defender spoke with Deajon-Jackson about his journey just before he left Houston for Harvard.
DEFENDER: How did DeBakey help prepare you for where you’re going now?
DEAJON-JACKSON: I don’t even know if I would’ve gone pre-med had I not gone to DeBakey High School. I think DeBakey prepared me so much. First, in terms of helping me understand what it meant to be a doctor, what it meant to be pre-med. We actually went into the hospitals and had sessions shadowing doctors. That’s where I first kind of fell in love with the idea that I can actually see myself doing this. Then once we got to the actual classes, especially with the STEM classes, I think they prepared me so much for my college career. My first college general chemistry and biology classes, I distinctly remember thinking, “We did this at DeBakey. I took tests like this for years now. This is nothing.”
DEFENDER: What was eight-year-old Jelani thinking about becoming when he grew up?
DEAJON-JACKSON: So, I went to Parker Elementary. They have a really good music program, and I did everything. I was in the choir. I was in the band. I played xylophone and triangle. I played piano. Now, how good I was at any of those… debatable. But that was my original intention. And I kind of figured out, “I don’t know if I’m as good at this.” So, that’s when I kind of switched to more academic stuff in middle school, high school.
DEFENDER: What things at Washington University impacted you most?
DEAJON-JACKSON: The first thing I think about when I think about WashU is the John B. Ervin Scholars Program. That’s one of the [school’s] scholarships. It’s targeted for mostly African-American students. Those were the first people I had contact with. Before any of the WashU orientations, we had our Ervin Scholars orientation where we got all together, we talked, we laughed. I think that was one of the first times that I was able to see that many smart, strong Black people at one place. And I think that was what gave me kind of the introduction of like, “Okay, I can fit in here. I can be here, I can succeed at Wash U.” And those connections in the Ervin Scholars program lasted my whole four years. I still talk to them now. Even going from a mentee in my first couple of years to being a mentor to the up-and-coming classes.
DEFENDER: The medical school application process; what was that like for you?
DEAJON-JACKSON: So you think that it is a grueling process and you don’t really know and until you’re in it. But it’s basically like a yearlong process. The application itself first opens in late May, early June, and you don’t really hear back from all of your schools until like February, March of the following year. And if I were to give advice on it, kind of a general thing is don’t make it your whole life. Don’t invest all of your happiness, all of your hopes and dreams into this one specific process, because it’s a doozy, it’s grueling, and there are ups and downs. You want to have something to anchor yourself, whether that’s friends, some other hobby, something. Don’t make this your whole life.
DEFENDER: Black patient outcomes improve tremendously when they have access to Black physicians. Can you speak to that?
DEAJON-JACKSON: That’s absolutely true. And I think that’s a testament to the importance of representation in medicine, both in terms of actual patient outcomes, having people there on the ground who, one, care about the patients, understand them and see kind of themselves in the patients, see their family members in the patients, and also understand specific issues that might be specific to the Black population. For instance, back to my time with clinical research, I had a friend who was working with brain scanners and her work was showing how a lot of the clinical research that goes into brain scans isn’t really inclusive of Black patients and specifically Black patients who have more natural hair. Because many of these devices weren’t created with Black patients in mind. So that’s a big consideration when we’re thinking about Black people and underrepresented people being in medicine. It’s that broader context, that understanding of like, “Oh, these are specific issues and we wanna make sure that all the medication we have available are available to everyone.”
MORE ABOUT JELANI DEAJON-JACKSON
Favorite musical genre: I’ve really been getting into Neo Soul. Erykah Badu is definitely on my playlist.
Favorite food: I want to say Fettuccine Alfredo, although I’m lactose intolerant .
What are you reading these days: “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Great book. Very much recommended.
Hobbies: My most recent thing, I learned a lot about how to play volleyball when I was up in New Haven. Very fun. Still learning.
Mantra: One is “Ask for help before you need it.” Another one is “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”