It’s not easy being the new kid. So when Jacob Neis of Eden Prairie transferred to Minnetonka High School last year as a junior, his mom gave him some advice.
“Find your people,” Neis said. “Find the people who share your passions, appreciate your quirks, and challenge you where you enjoy being challenged.”
Neis found his people in the Minnetonka band.
“Music to me is the perfect union of the cerebral and the inexplicable,” said Neis (pronounced “nice”), who plays clarinet and piano. “I'm one of those poor saps who is more emotionally invested in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than the Super Bowl.”
In August, he was selected to participate in the Minnesota All-State Band. “I spent a week in Duluth playing music with people of similar musical passion and equal or greater talent,” said Neis. “It was awesome.”
Neis also plays clarinet in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, an auditioned group of symphony orchestras which draws on students from all over the metro. This is his first year in its top group, the Symphony.
How does he battle stage fright?
“I almost never feel nervous for group performances,” he said. “But as soon as I step into an audition room, I start shaking. Deep breaths, I guess, are the key, especially since I’m a wind player and the first thing to go when I’m nervous is generally breath support.”
Last year, as a member of the Minnetonka wind ensemble, he traveled to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic on tour with the top orchestra.
“One of my favorite parts of the trip was a visit to the Czech city of Cesky Krumlov,” he said. “The town is virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages in terms of architecture.”
Neis is drawn to foreign cities. “My ideal vacation would consist of ambling through the streets of Rome or Beijing or Cape Town, whatever, taking in the sights and sounds and smells,” he said.
As for foreign languages, Neis speaks a little Spanish. “Credit is due there to Mr. Felty,” he said. “I had a shaky foundation in the language coming in, but his class helped me improve by leaps and bounds.”
Besides music, another of Neis’s passions is math. Earlier this year, Neis qualified for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO).
The USAMO is a series of exams designed to select the team that will represent the country in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Of the tens of thousands of students who took the initial exams last year, 287 qualified for the USAMO. Neis landed in that select group.
“The problems are insanely complex, and to answer any of them is an accomplishment,” said Neis, who was the top Minnesota scorer. “Making the USAMO has been a goal of mine since freshman year.”
Neis began his math career at an early age. As a fifth grader, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Program, which enables middle and high school students to complete high school math in two years (rather than the usual four), followed by a three-year calculus sequence.
The program introduced him to University professor Thomas Schwartzbauer, who inspired Neis.
“Dr. Schwartzbauer took a personal interest in each student's performance and his lectures were entertaining and informed,” Neis said. “He didn't just rehash what was in the textbook.”
Neis realizes that not everyone shares his interest in numbers and equations.
“I've come to realize that math isn't as exciting and beautiful to others as it is to me,” he said. “What I think is important is that while our tastes and interests differ, I and those around me learn to respect each other's passions, and maybe even be willing to find out a little more about them.”
Neis’s parents have modeled this open-mindedness. Neis’s father is a pediatrician and his mother is a nurse practitioner. Still, they haven’t tried to steer Neis toward a career in medicine.
“They let me figure out my own passions and interests,” he explained. “That said, I have learned more about the human anatomy and physiology than most from our dinner conversations.”
Neis also learned about medicine during his summer internship at a biomedical engineering lab at the University of Minnesota.
“The lab works on improvements to a therapy used in severe cases of Parkinson's,” he explained. “I learned a ton about the human brain.”
In addition to science, Neis also enjoys philosophy. His favorite class at MHS is Theory of Knowledge taught by Cheryl Duncan.
“It’s a how-we-know-what-we-know course,” he said. “Each one of my classmates brought their own value to the class discussions as a result of our unique backgrounds, beliefs, and preferences. It forced me to examine why I've believed what I've believed about the world up to now, and how I may think more critically about new information presented to me in the future.”
Theory of Knowledge is a required course for international baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidates at MHS. The IB program is a demanding course of study that emphasizes critical thinking, intercultural understanding and exposure to a variety of points of view.
Neis transferred from a private school in Chaska because of Minnetonka’s IB program.
“One of the biggest differences for me was the sheer volume of opportunities available to students,” said Neis. “Also, we have access to a wide variety of support services, like guidance counselors and the college and career center, that my old school didn’t have.”
Neis, like many high school seniors, is focused on the college admissions process. He will have plenty of options, thanks to earning a perfect score on the ACT.
How did Neis feel when he learned he got a score of 36 on the college entrance exam? “Relieved,” he said.
That’s understandable, since only one-tenth of one percent of all students taking the ACT get a perfect score.
Neis is also an AP National Scholar, an award which recognizes high school students who demonstrate college-level achievement.
As for his secret to academic success, “I try to stay organized with my schedule and keep my planner up to date,” he said.
This spring, Neis will graduate from high school.
“I'm excited about the opportunities that go along with moving out and growing up,” he said, “but I'm also trying to squeeze as many good memories as possible out of my last few months.”
Family is central to those memories. “It's an eerie feeling, knowing that in less than a year, I'll no longer be calling my parents' house home,” he said.
The Neis family includes parents Dr. Timothy and Cathy Neis, younger brothers Michael and Alex, and a terrier-poodle mix, Oliver.
Neis points to his father as a lifelong mentor. “I really admire my dad,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, he has modeled discipline, responsibility, and hard work to my brothers and me.”
“He also has a quirky sense of humor and makes a point of spending time with us,” Neis added. “He's been a never-ending source of encouragement and sound advice to me, even when I think I don't need either.”
Extended family gathered at the Neis home in Eden Prairie for Thanksgiving. “My grandparents bring the sweet potatoes– my grandpa’s from North Carolina,” Neis said. “My dad’s parents bring cranberries and a strange Jell-o salad, a family tradition and holdover from the 1950s Jell-o craze.”
This Thanksgiving, Neis has had much to reflect upon. “I’m thankful to have been surrounded by so many supportive mentors, from school teachers to music instructors to parents and grandparents,” he said. “I’m thankful to be able to fill my days with things I love to do.”
One of those things is reading. Favorite books include The Scarlet Letter, The Count of Monte Cristo, Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell, and Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand.
This love of literature led Neis to volunteer weekly at the Eden Prairie Library.
“I shelve books and help library users find what they are looking for,” he said. “I loved the library as a child. It was one of my favorite places to go on ‘errand day’.”
Neis also has a knack for writing. He is a features editor for the school newspaper, Breezes.
“My co-editor Megan Prosser and I work on the center spread for each month's edition,” he said. “We get to explore a lot of student-interest stories and experiment with different layouts, designs and non-traditional article formats.”
Neis has some specifics for what he's looking for in a college.
“All the schools I am applying to have good music programs, research opportunities for undergrads, and from what I understand, quirky, unique student bodies,” he said. “Wherever I end up, I will continue to play music and hopefully meet motivated and lively new friends.”
And where does he see himself in 10 years?
“Given the pace of space exploration thus far, I'd say probably somewhere on Earth,” Neis said. “Beyond that, I hesitate to make any more specific predictions.”