Hoffman Estates man with Asperger's graduating magna cum laude
He sometimes forgets if he's already eaten lunch and he gets lost if he ventures a block from his home in Hoffman Estates, but tonight, 26-year-old Jack Donehey-Nykiel will finish an amazing lifetime journey that has spanned continents, fed his intellectual appetite and left him at the top of his class.
“People with Asperger's have lots of issues, but they also have talents,” explains Jack, who has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. When he completes his last final exam tonight in his political science international relations class, Jack will have met all the requirements needed to graduate from DePaul University magna cum laude with a degree in Islamic World Studies.
“He's been one of the best students I've taught in 15 years,” says Ogenga Otunnu, associate professor of history at DePaul. “Unless someone tells you he has difficulties, you don't even know that in class. He's an amazing student to teach. He's a superb human being.”
Jack has been amazing people -- including his parents Dennis Nykiel and Maureen Donehey -- since he was a toddler who would sit by himself and read while his preschool peers frolicked on the playground.
“I thought, ‘How cute,' and then I saw that this is what he was reading,” Maureen says as she pulls out Jack's dog-eared copy of The American Medical Association's Encyclopedia of Medicine.
Having a complete knowledge of rare illnesses and asking kids, “What's your favorite disease?” wasn't a conversation starter on the playgrounds for Jack, Dennis says.
“It's the playground. It's not the plague ground,” Jack quips, exploding into laughter,
Jack's all-encompassing passion for diseases piqued his interest in book after book about Africa. “Jack's read it all,” his dad says, pointing to the books three deep on the shelves in Jack's bedroom. “He's insatiable.”
The African exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago opened another avenue for Jack. “We used to go every single Sunday, every week,” his mother says.
“Before I started studying Islam, I was really into Africa,” says Jack, who has traveled to many nations and took some college courses in Morocco. As a youngster reading a museum display listing the names of several tribes captured into slavery, “I thought, ‘Geez, what other tribes were captured?'” remembers Jack, who by age 8 had compiled extensive volumes of thousands of tribe names in a binder he called his “Ethnic Groups List.”
Africa sparked his interest in Islam and other religions. When he graduated in 2004 from Conant High School, where his parents are Spanish teachers, Jack took a world religion class at Harper College in Palatine.
“When it came to Islam, he already knew more than I did,” says professor William Pankey, who has kept in touch with Jack and his family and already has booked Jack to be a guest speaker in a Harper class next semester. “It was just a real joy having him in class. He really brought out the best in other students. He's a lot of fun.”
Born two months premature and stricken with meningitis as a newborn, Jack had five brain surgeries by the time he was 8. An only child, Jack has significant issues with “visual memory,” which explains why he gets lost so easily, displays below-average math abilities and has difficulty reading social cues, says Dr. Michael Frey, the Arlington Heights psychologist who diagnosed Jack with Asperger's and still treats him. “But he has tremendous gifts.”
Jack speaks English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian and a smattering of other languages and has read the poems of Lord Byron, 16th Century Hindu poet Tulsidas, and Dante's “Inferno” in the original Italian.
“I had read several English translations and when I taught myself Italian, I realized some of the English translations were a little lazy,” says Jack, who has talked about writing his own Dante translation.
Jack's parents didn't know anything about Asperger's until Jack was diagnosed at age 14. They explained Asperger's to Jack that summer after he asked, “When will I ever find somebody like me?” his mom remembers.
His parents have worked tirelessly to help Jack find his place. Maureen and Jack often speak about Asperger's at conferences and schools in this country and beyond. His mom, and sometimes his dad, have driven him to night classes at DePaul two or three times a week for five years, reading or doing paperwork outside the classroom for hours while waiting for Jack to finish.
Jack's success “is a function of Jack and the house where he has been raised,” says Amina McCloud, a DePaul professor of Islamic Studies who met Jack when he was just a high school student. “He read one of my books and asked his mom to bring him over.”
“I can say without reservation that Jack is one of the brightest students I have encountered in 17 years of university teaching,” says professor Marda Dunsky, who taught Jack in two classes.
Jack's “different abilities” proved “delightful,” and “definitely enriched my teaching,” says professor Linda Graf, a registered nurse who taught Jack in a women's health class. “I know he's got a place in this world. He's got great things ahead of him.”
He might go to grad school or land a job as a research assistant, but after so much effort to earn his degree, Jack says he plans to “take some time off” after tonight's final. While Jack will toast his success late tonight with his favorite Caribou coffee drink, his parents have the champagne on ice. His graduation, which will be celebrated with a ceremony in June, is just another step on Jack's journey.
Jack says it all fits into the family motto of “Poco a Poco Se Va Lejos” — “Little by Little, You'll Go Far.”