Sojas Wagle, 17, is studying cognitive science at Brown University in Providence, R.I. His tenure at the Ivy League institution began after a high school career so packed with extracurriculars, achievements and honors that his guidance counselor at Har-Ber High School in Springdale ran out of room to list them on Wagle’s application for the Arkansas Times’ Academic All-Stars award (a technical problem kept Sojas from being recognized with the rest of the class earlier this year). Sojas received a perfect score on the ACT as a sophomore and graduated first in his class of 644 students with a 4.37 GPA this spring, but it was during Wagle’s self-studied AP psychology course his freshman year that his advocacy for mental health issues began.
“I’m usually not the type of person to enjoy reading textbooks, but what I thought was going to be dry content ended up being fascinating, especially the parts that talked about mental illness and its manifestations,” Sojas said. “What really struck me was the fact that there were so few cures and treatments for mental illnesses.”
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Sojas said his father’s career as a neonatologist helped instill an interest in the medical field, but it’s his passion for advocacy that drives him to pursue a specialty in psychology.
“Psychology is an activist medicine,” Sojas said. “You advocate for people who are mentally ill, and you’re doing research for treatments. Psychology is a lot of communication and interaction between patients and doctors as compared to other fields. There’s no brain scan to detect depression; it’s all about asking questions and connecting with patients.”
Sojas said being raised by Indian parents greatly influenced his success in high school, specifically in the push by his parents to prioritize education at a young age.
“I think putting [the] idea in my mind to be academically oriented has had a great impact on me, especially when I was very little and too young to decide things on own. It gave me direction at a very young age,” he said. “After elementary school, I started pushing myself out of habit because they had instilled that in me until didn’t need to push anymore. It’s a pretty optimal parenting technique.”
In addition to his passion for mental health issues, Sojas is also a strong advocate for the “powerful experience” that is learning a second language. He encourages everyone — especially Americans — to do so.
“I have no interest in being president [of the U.S.], but I would want to be Secretary of Education for the sole fact that I would make bilingual education mandatory by kindergarten,” Sojas said. “If you want to be culturally conscious, the first step is understanding what people of other cultures are saying to you.”
Sojas is fluent in Spanish, and he tutored students in ESL classes, an experience he called “eye-opening” and rewarding. He also founded two monthly newsletters at his high school — “Edumacation,” about news in the scientific community, and “Asi Va El Mundo,” a publication in Spanish about current events.
Sojas also serves as editor-in-chief of the International Youth Neuroscience Association Journal, a bimonthly publication of research by high school and undergraduate writers. He says his goal is to become a pediatric psychologist, a field in which he believes he’ll be able to make the largest difference in the future of mental health.
“[Pediatric psychology] involves hitting the problem at the source, when children’s brains are more pliable,” Sojas said. “It’s important to do this so [there are] less costs in the future, and mental illness is more difficult to combat as we age.”
Alongside his focus on neuroscience, Sojas said he’ll be pursuing a second concentration at Brown: theater arts, specifically acting and directing. Sojas participated in his school’s debate team through high school, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he gave forensics — the drama portion of the speech and debate program — a try.
During the fall of his senior year, Sojas competed in his first forensics tournament in Houston. He performed in a speech event called Program Oral Interpretation, which requires participants to combine multiple types of literature — prose, poetry or excerpts from plays — into one 10-minute performance with a central theme. Sojas said he was “not expecting much” from this event since it was his first time competing, but he got first place, and he hopes to hone his acting skills at Brown.
“I really enjoy picking up on the different techniques that people do,” he said. “Every time I watch a performance, I see someone who does something that I really want to imitate.”
After traveling with his family to Greece and Turkey earlier this summer, Sojas went to Washington, D.C., at the end of June for the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. In July, he conducted research on animal psychology with Dr. Ruth Colwill at Brown.
“I’m really excited. I fell in love with Brown when I first visited last June,” Sojas said, ahead of beginning school in August. “Being on campus, I felt like myself and it felt like home. I’m really excited to get that feeling again.”