From Refugee to Doctor: The Power of Mentorship in Medical Education

The Young Physicians Initiative is one way Tufts University School of Medicine is building a more inclusive path to medicine and encouraging young people to consider medical careers

The road to medical school requires resources — like money, parental support, and interpersonal connections — that are not available to everyone. But by building a network of medical students, doctors, and young people interested in medicine, an organization at Tufts University School of Medicine hopes to make medicine accessible to people from all backgrounds.

“I want to ensure that all individuals —refugees from other countries and people in the U.S. who are economically and socially disadvantaged — are visible, cared for, and given the opportunities to advance their medical careers,” said Abdallah Al-Obaidi, a second-year student at the School of Medicine.

Al-Obaidi is the founder of the Tufts chapter of the Young Physicians Initiative (YPI), a nationwide program meant to help young people interested in medical careers learn more about the field. Recently, YPI held a “Doctor for a Day” conference at the School of Medicine where high schoolers and college students mingled with Tufts medical students and attending physicians from Tufts Medical Center and Boston University Medical Campus.

Mentorship Matters

Al-Obaidi got involved in YPI as a high schooler in Winder, Georgia, where his family resettled after fleeing violence in Iraq. Al-Obaidi had known he wanted to eventually become a doctor, but had few people around him with any experience in the medical field. “I came as a refugee in 2013 and didn’t speak English. I wanted to become a doctor but had no access to medical professionals. I did not know anything as a first-generation student in America, with a refugee background, limited English proficiency, and no social network,” he said.

Looking for mentorship, Al-Obaidi reached out to Heval Kelli, the founder of YPI and a cardiologist at the Northside Hospital Cardiovascular Institute in Lawrence, Georgia. Kelli, a refugee who fled his home in Syria in 1996, happily stepped in to mentor Al-Obaidi throughout his time as an undergraduate at Emory University.

Once Al-Obaidi started medical school at Tufts, he wanted to use his experience to help other students, just as Kelli had done for him. With fellow Tufts medical student Benayas Dereje Begashaw, he started YPI as a pilot program at the school. After two high schools in the Boston area — Roxbury Uncommon High School and Cristo Rey Boston High School — signed on, the program grew.

Groups of students sit at round tables in a conference room at the School of Medicine with four panelists in white doctor coats at the front of the room.

The Young Physicians Initiative recently held a “Doctor for a Day” conference at the School of Medicine where high schoolers and college students mingled with Tufts medical students and attending physicians from Tufts Medical Center and Boston University Medical Campus. Photo: Courtesy of Abdallah Al-Obaidi

For Kelli, paying it forward is key; Kelli’s mentor helped him, Kelli mentored Al-Obaidi, and now Al-Obaidi is helping others. “When you plant a seed, it can grow a tree that will nourish people,” said Kelli.

Begashaw and Al-Obaidi have been able to pass the baton to three first-year students, who are the program’s new leaders. And participation in the program is now recognized as a Community Service Learning opportunity by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, meaning that medical students can get community service credit for their work.

Begashaw has high hopes for the future of YPI at Tufts. “I want to expand and form better networks with schools around Boston and engage with schools that have students from underrepresented communities or students who go to colleges without strong pre-med departments,” he said.

Connecting high school students with medical students, in particular, is important to foster meaningful relationships, said Marlene Jreaswec, program manager in the Office for Multicultural Affairs. “High school students have many times shared that they find medical students to be relatable, and not so much older than them that they cannot forge bonds and mentoring relationships,” she said.

Building New Networks

At a recent conference at Tufts School of Medicine, high school students in attendance heard from medical students and physicians, worked through an example medical case together, and participated in a networking luncheon with medical professionals.

As part of a panel about medical professions, Kristen Goodell, the associate dean of admissions at Boston University’s Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine, gave the crowd of young medical school hopefuls advice about what medical schools are looking for. While grades and clinical experience are important, she said, an obvious commitment to one’s community or a burning passion for a specific research area can help an applicant stand out.

One key to the journey, though, is getting the most out of the non-academic aspects of undergrad, David Neumeyer, the dean of admissions at Tufts School of Medicine, told the students. “Don't use college for the sole source of going to medical school,” he said. “Just take advantage of the experiences, follow lots of different paths. Make your college experience transformational and transformative — use it to grow and develop as a person.”

Then, Al-Obaidi and Kelli shared their stories, pointing out that with the help and support of others, it’s possible for anyone in any situation to achieve their dreams of becoming a doctor. “I have made it here, but I did not make it here alone. I come as one, but I stand as many,” said Al-Obaidi.

Al-Obaidi and Kelli hope that events like the conference will also encourage other medical students to get involved and broaden the impact of YPI.

“We get so caught up in our research and our work that we forget that you really have to go beyond the exam room to make a difference in your community,” said Kelli.

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