Award-winning Med School Student Demonstrates Uncommon Leadership

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, Palm Beach Atlantic University President

As we look in the rearview mirror at 2020, we offer a collective “Whew! God got us through, but what a year.” Here at Palm Beach Atlantic University, as I look to the months ahead, I find fresh inspiration and leadership from PBA graduates, including our young alumni.

Emmanuel McNeely, for example, points us to the kind of lifestyle that could bring hope and healing to our traumatized nation.

The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) has named Emmanuel the 2021 CCCU Young Alumni Award winner. The CCCU is a higher education association of more than 180 Christian institutions around the world. This annual award recognizes young graduates “who have exhibited uncommon leadership or achieved notable success in a way that reflects Christian higher education.”

Previous recipients include Graham Smith (Wheaton College), co-founder of the Times Square Restaurant P.S. Kitchen; Dr. Jacob Atem (Spring Arbor University), a former “Lost Boy” of Sudan and co-founder of the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization; and Angie Thomas (Belhaven University), author of the New York Times bestseller The Hate U Give.

Emmanuel’s award, to be presented in March, recognizes the work of the Dr. M.D. Project, which he co-founded with his wife to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who successfully pursue degrees in medicine. The project has reached thousands of students with practical, encouraging workshops. You can read details at


PBA was training ground for leadership

uncommon leadership
Emmanuel McNeely and his wife, Sa’Rah McNeely, founded a project to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who successfully pursue degrees in medicine.

We’re awfully proud of Emmanuel, who graduated from PBA in 2012, and who is to graduate in 2023 from the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University. “Palm Beach Atlantic University was the training ground for my spiritual, academic and professional development,” he said. “Whether it was prayer in the classroom, cancer research in the lab or worship in the chapel, a PBA education showed me how to use my life to honor God in all settings. I pray this award encourages others to use their bold faith in Jesus to bring God glory in secular environments.”

Since not everybody is called to be a doctor, we’re especially excited at this broad example Emmanuel provides: someone overcoming obstacles and then reaching out as mentor and encourager to others facing similar obstacles.

Obviously, we all face challenges; and as we find God’s help overcoming them, we can share that with others. We see the principle in 2 Corinthians 1:4, explained in The Living Bible, “when others are troubled, needing our sympathy and encouragement, we can pass on to them this same help and comfort God has given us.”

I bet you’ve felt that special power in the encouraging word of someone who shares, “I know how it feels, because I’ve been where you are now.” Emmanuel knows what it’s like to be a first-generation college student, to overcome financial hurdles, to keep going after getting a D on an exam. As he reaches out to struggling young students, he brings a real blessing as a medical student who’s not so far removed from the struggle.

Emmanuel recalls an internship at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, where as a high school student he shadowed a surgeon who removed cancer in other people after God healed him from cancer. But sadly, Emmanuel said, not many young people in the Black community find someone to lead them into the medical field.


Addressing health disparities through leadership

“As a Black male medical student, I understand the scarcity of Black males going into medicine, and I understand that there is a very leaky pipeline into medicine,” Emmanuel said. “I am working towards increasing the number of Black males entering medical school, and I look forward to a future where more minorities exist in the medical field so that we can better address health disparities across all fields of medicine.”

Emmanuel plans to do an orthopedic surgery residency after his graduation. He took time away from his medical school courses to conduct a second year of spine surgery research at Johns Hopkins University.

He founded the Dr. M.D. Project with his wife, Sa’Rah McNeely, also a medical student. They serve together in leadership in the youth ministry at their church, and they hope to train ambassadors to teach the Dream Project, spreading their message of encouragement, tenacity, and vision.

“Through both his medical studies and his deep commitment to mentoring the next generation even as he continues in his pursuit to become an outstanding physician, Emmanuel McNeely embodies the whole-person love and care that Jesus himself models for us in scripture,” said CCCU President Shirley V. Hoogstra.

Emmanuel and his wife see their mentoring and “hopefully duplicating ourselves” as a natural outcome of their own experience. “That was the whole reason we got blessed,” he said.

I find that mindset incredibly inspiring. While 2020 brought us all many fears and difficulties, if we open our eyes we’ll also see the many ways we’ve been blessed. Now it’s our turn to be intentional and find those around us whom WE can bless. My impression is that Emmanuel and Sa’Rah McNeely will make this a lifestyle. So may we all.


Dr. Debra A. Schwinn is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University ( A physician, researcher and innovator, she began her role as university president on May 4, 2020. For more articles by Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, visit

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