Every college graduate has obstacles they have to overcome along the way; Nick Summerlee’s list just happens to be longer than most.
Summerlee was a high school dropout. He fought in the Iraq War and, as a result, battled mental illness. But through it all, Summerlee kept on fighting, believing in himself and earned a bachelor of science in Biology from University of Detroit Mercy this year.
“The only reason I finished this degree was because of the support from the people at Detroit Mercy,” Summerlee said. “I’m 99.9% sure that if I went to any other university I don’t think I would have completed my degree and be where I’m at right now.”
Summerlee hopes to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist, something that didn’t seem very likely back in 2002 when he dropped out of high school to join the Army. He was in field artillery during the Iraq War, while his senior class was graduating in 2003.
He lived in Japan for 10 years after he got out of the service and said he returned to the United States because he wanted to pursue a career in medicine.
He enrolled at Detroit Mercy after earning an associate’s degree at a community college. Summerlee said from his first advising appointment with Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Elizabeth Roberts-Kirchhoff he could tell Detroit Mercy was a special place.
“She was very thorough and in-depth, and cared about me graduating just from the first encounter with me,” Summerlee said. “It was completely different than any other university I attempted to attend.”
Summerlee instantly hit it off with professors and was confident he made the right choice by enrolling at Detroit Mercy.
“My first classes there were fantastic,” Summerlee said. “The professors were very knowledgeable and they broke things down in a way that made it very easy to learn whether you were a novice or an expert in the sciences. Everyone could gain something from the class.
“And if you ever did have problems, you could go to any of these professor’s offices and sit down with them. They would kind of BS with you for five minutes and have a good conversation, get to know you. They didn’t just treat you like a number and a grade; they treated you like a human being. That was something I always appreciated from everybody at Detroit Mercy.”
Summerlee’s relationships with his professors were key when he started to go through a deep depression and was in and out of the hospital.
“I went through the worst depression of my life, it was terrible,” Summerlee said. “It got to the point where I was probably going to end my life, to be honest. I was seeking psychiatric treatment at the VA and unfortunately, through a misdiagnosis, they put me on a medication I shouldn’t have been on and it really had some terrible side effects.
“The professors at Detroit Mercy, they just worked with me and were there. With all the doctor appointments I had to go to, I was in the hospital all the time, while I was trying to complete my undergrad.”
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Mara Livezey said Summerlee was off to a great start in her class when she began to notice a change so reached out to him.
“Nick was really a light in the classroom and never failed to laugh at the lame jokes and cat memes I incorporated into my classroom,” Livezey said. “I could quickly tell Nick was an excellent student, but about halfway through the semester, Nick started missing class and assignments. It was really at this time that we started chatting more outside of class. This is when he opened up about his history as a veteran and with his mental health issues.
“He described that his mental health had taken a turn for the worse, so I did everything within my power to encourage him.”
Summerlee underwent a new treatment and said it completely changed everything for him. He was able to complete his degree and he credits Detroit Mercy for renewing his faith.
“I realized the world is such an imperfect place with so much suffering, but only people willing to do good can alleviate that suffering, and they must have a belief in a higher power to hold them accountable,” Summerlee said. “I prayed to God that if he alleviated my suffering I would dedicate my life to doing good for humanity.”
Summerlee is currently doing all he can to help during the COVID-19 crisis through his own nonprofit called Project Mercy Masks, where he uses a 3D printer to make masks.
“I called it Project Mercy Masks because the professors at Detroit Mercy showed me mercy in my time of need,” Summerlee said. “I’m just in so much debt to those professors from Detroit Mercy.”
Summerlee taught himself to 3D print the masks despite not having any experience with 3D printing before the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was completely clueless about 3D printers before all this,” Summerlee said. “I didn’t even know what companies made them. The printers I bought are made here in the United States. The company taught me a bunch of stuff and the rest I learned from YouTube and reading forums. Everything else has been prior knowledge. To do the chemical treatments I’m doing to the masks I use my organic chemistry knowledge from Detroit Mercy.
“I am currently printing the Montana Mask, which is the most popular 3D printed mask right now. It was developed by physicians and it is approved for use by medical staff in over five states.”
Summerlee intends to print masks as long as there is a need and is in the process of setting up a web site to sell the masks. He’s using all the proceeds from sales to print more masks and donate them to first responders.
“It’s weird going from having pretty much nothing to being where I’m at right now, but a lot of it just had to do with pushing myself to never be in the same place, trying to improve myself constantly and never staying stagnant,” Summerlee said. “Going from a high school dropout who joined the Army because he had very little going for himself at the time to where I am now, it’s a real eye opener of what somebody can accomplish.”
— By Dave Pemberton