Whether he’s on the campaign trail, advocating for hospitals in rural Illinois, or offering advice for Rackham graduate students, one question guides Neill Mohammad’s day-to-day work: How can he use his experiences to help others?
It was in November 2016 that Neill considered running for public office for the first time since he tossed his hat in the ring for fifth-grade class treasurer. As a Rackham graduate student, Neill was drawn to political science because of the practical side of the discipline- the side that would allow him to make a difference in the world or at least put others in the position to do so. Of course, running for office isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, so he did what so many Wolverines do- he turned to the connections he made at the University of Michigan. As a Rackham student, he led a class for participants in the Michigan in Washington Program, and knew his fellow alumni would have valuable insight regarding what it would take to run for federal office.
In March of 2017, he set his sights on fulfilling his political ambition by officially announcing his run as a Democratic candidate for Congress, representing his hometown of DeKalb and Illinois’ 16th District.
Neill’s political career may be in its early stages, but he has been working for the greater good by serving underrepresented populations since earning his Ph.D. in 2012. Upon completing his doctoral degree, Neill wasn’t sure if a career in academia was for him, especially as available tenure-track jobs became scarce. Neill became a consultant for the Huron Consulting Group where he continues to serve rural hospitals, many on the brink of closure, through administration and performance improvement.
“A lot of these hospitals are the only ones in their communities. I’m usually helping them figure out ways to stay alive given that closing would mean that an entire town or area would be without health care… It’s a responsibility I take very seriously,” Neill says of his role as a consultant.
In his position, he helps under-resourced hospitals navigate the world of insurer reimbursements and control the costs that are often passed along to them by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Neill serves hospitals in rural locations with high populations of uninsured patients and those who rely on Medicaid to pay for their care. He helps those hospitals help those who can’t help themselves by handling the bureaucracy that often comes with federal funding and health care guidelines.
That has a lot to do with why he has chosen to run for office. Neill wanted to change the way federal entities, specifically political parties, serve and communicate with rural areas and the communities within them. DeKalb, like many other cities in Illinois’s 16th district, struggles with unemployment and relies on the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, making Neill’s bid for congress that much more important to him. It has been nearly six years since a democratic campaign has gained traction in the area, but Neill has begun hiring staff and has built a burgeoning fundraising effort.
“People are engaged and getting empowered to affect political change. It’s exciting!”
By running for public office, Neill can actively advocate for and give back to the town to which he has been closely tied since he was four years old.
Neill began his college education at Northern Illinois University before completing his undergraduate degree in political science, with a minor in computer science, at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Like many students, Neill came to the University of Michigan on the recommendation of his advisor. He found that it would be a great place to gain exposure to a vast range of research areas, ultimately leading his focus to American foreign policy and public opinion. His area of study was especially relevant as he began his dissertation in 2003, as the United States entered the second Iraq War. Neill began asking questions regarding how voters understand and influence the outside world. Many questions focused on how voters in democracy make sense of the world around them, the role voters play in times of war and peace, and whether the need for explanation to the public impacted political decisions. Through his utilization of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, Neill found that he could integrate his experience in computer science with the application and simulation work of his political science research.
Neill looks back fondly on his time as a graduate student at Rackham: “What I miss most is the camaraderie- going to research seminars, spit balling ideas off one another, and trying to figure out the best way to test an idea.” It is clear that he continues to place a high value on collaboration, especially between current graduate students and alumni. According to Neill, the best way alumni can support students currently pursuing a graduate degree is through mentorship, especially for Ph.D. students hoping to pursue a career outside of academia. “Non-academic paths are becoming more and more important, and graduate students don’t always get the broader perspective on what they can do with their degree. I think it’s important to help foster that.”
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, as Neill can tell you. “I really wish I had realized sooner that most if not all of my peers struggled with the same questions I did- whether grad school was the right path to take, whether I could do the work, and so on. I think a lot of Ph.D. students share the experience of having been a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and so the shock of not being in that position once you're with a lot of other brilliant people can hit pretty hard.”
For current graduate students, he reminds them to keep their options open and to realize that the work is not your life. “I think there’s a glamorization of being unhappy in academia, as if that’s a required part of the gig or some sort of rite of passage. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Neill continues to use his experiences, including those during his time as a Rackham graduate student, to impact the lives of others.