If you ask Neil Harris, he still went away to college. He just went across town to do it.

Harris starts his freshman year this month at Illinois State University in Normal, just down the road from where he grew up in Bloomington. His mom works for Redbird Athletics, and he even graduated from one of Illinois State’s Laboratory Schools, University High.

Yet Harris is carving out an entirely new experience for himself at Illinois State. Sure, he’s driven past campus hundreds of times, but he’s never hung out on the Quad, or been mentored by one of our professors, or cheered from the student section at Hancock Stadium. He’s never lived in an ISU residence hall, or lifted weights at the Student Fitness Center. Now he can.

“No matter how close you were to it on the outside, it’s completely different when you’re inside,” Harris said. “I know a lot of U-High students who’ve come here, and none of them have regretted it.”

Harris was looking for two things as he embarked upon his college search—a big-time athletics program, and a school that would reward his high GPA and ACT score with a merit-based scholarship.

That became Illinois State. Harris vividly remembers the moment when a current Presidential Scholar called to tell Harris he was going to receive that honor himself—the most prestigious scholarship available to new freshmen. It wasn’t just the money. ISU recognized all his hard work, in and out of the classroom.

Neil Harris hikes a ball

Harris was elected co-captain of the Pioneer football team by his teammates during his senior year.

“That’s what did it. That phone call,” Harris said. “After that, I knew where I was going.”

Harris was a standout student at U-High, in more ways than one. He was elected co-captain of the Pioneer football team by his teammates during his senior year—the proudest moment of his life. He plans to continue helping out the team through the fall semester as an assistant coach.

“As team captain I learned a lot about how people act, how they want to be treated, and their different personalities and motivations for being there,” Harris said.

Harris’ career plans are just now taking shape, and he’s planning to major in biology or chemistry and go to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon. His No. 1 fear as a freshman is that his grades will slip, that he won’t meet his own high academic standards.

“I feel like I’m ready to dedicate myself to the work that needs to be done to have a good enough GPA and MCAT score to get into a good medical school,” said Harris, an Honors student.

Once he gets settled in the classroom, Harris hopes to enjoy the full student experience. He’s planning to play intramural basketball, follow Red Alert to Arch Madness, and study abroad.

“I’m excited to find the people who are going to be my lifelong friends,” Harris said. “I don’t know who they’ll be, but that’s part of the excitement.”

Harris is one of five new Redbirds featured this week on STATEside. Meet our other freshmen:

Apply now for spring or fall 2016, or set up a visit to our campus.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.