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Aya Ahmad On Getting a Prestigious Medical Internship and Embracing One’s Cultural Differences

Aya Ahmad,20, is currently a medical intern CU Anschutz and Kaiser Permanente.

When Aya Ahmad was five, she admired the medical encyclopedias lining her family’s bookshelf. When family members were sick, she would quickly leaf through the pages for a diagnosis. She was so terrified of cancer, she planned to cure it.

Fast forward a decade and a half or so, and Ahmad is now studying neuroscience at Colorado State University.

Ahmad grew up in the United States with her three brothers and her parents. Her childhood was a bit different from her peers because her parents are both refugees from Iraq.

WANTING TO FIT IN

Aya Ahmad wearing a scarf.
Photo courtesy Aya Ahmad

“When I was little, I was afraid to tell people I was a Muslim from Iraq because no one was either of those things,” Ahmad says. “All my friends were American and I just wanted to fit in.”

Ahmad’s parents have been trying to get green cards for 27 years so that they can visit their family. This process generally takes a year to four years, according to Ahmad.

“They’ve spent so much money on lawyers to just do everything properly,” Ahmad says. “Everything has been done legally. They’ve worked and lived here for 28 years.”

Although Ahmad is a U.S. citizen and can visit her extended family in Iraq, the country has not been stable enough to travel to until recently.

“It’s weird,” Ahmad says. “Pretty much everyone in my family is from Iraq but I’ve grown up here and I’ve lived here my whole life. I feel more American than Iraqi, which is a hard balance sometimes.”

Ahmad’s parents tell her stories of when they were growing up in Iraq. Life was considerably different. Iraq was stable, education was good and health and environmental standards were high. Until recently, ISIS has had control of their home city, she adds.

Group of Immigrants Making Notes
Group of Immigrants Making Notes (Photo via Envato Elements)

I feel more American than Iraqi, which is a hard balance sometimes.

“It was crazy — my parents came here, and a few years later a sanction was put on Iraq by the U.S. and that actually killed the country,” Ahmad said. “It starved it. People started starving. It wasn’t just an economic sanction; diseases that had been gone for decades like cholera started appearing again and in a country that was so pristine.”

TAKING A TOLL

Ahmad observes the toll this takes on her parents. When she decided to attend college in Colorado Springs, her mom responded coldly. After she left, her parents were more loving than ever, sending her care packages with baklava, according to Ahmad.

After a year away, Ahmad is at home again. She finds it hard to live with friends like most people her age do, she said.

“It sounds silly because I’m in Fort Collins, like a 10-minute drive, but it’s like a principle to them,” she says. “‘Why would you not live with us if you’re in the same city as us. Do you not like us?'”

Her parents often tell her that she doesn’t understand what it’s like to not see family for so long, according to Ahmad.

“It’s a hard balance for me,” Ahmad said. “I do have that mentality of going somewhere else and growing on my own but they don’t have that mentality.”

Ahmad met her friend Julia Tegethoff in a general chemistry lab at CSU. They’ve become close friends since then. Tegethoff attributes Ahmad’s positive personality traits partially to her parents’ cultural diversity.

I do have that mentality of going somewhere else and growing on my own but they don’t have that mentality.

“Aya’s parents are also very well-rounded people because of their background,” Tegethoff says. “They taught Aya to be accepting of everyone and everything and also showed her how to handle unfortunate situations. I think that for Aya, seeing what her parents have gone through has inspired her to go to med school to be able to help people who are less fortunate than her.”

WOMAN OF FAITH

Another element of Ahmad’s background is her Muslim religion. Once, her psychology teacher in high school told her she didn’t seem very Muslim, suggesting maybe she thought Ahmad should wear a headscarf.

Beautiful young arab woman posing outdoors in a headscarf. Attractive female muslim wearing a hijab
Photo via Envato Elements

“It’s sort of a symbol of the religion,” Ahmad says. “But it’s a choice. That’s the really important thing. A lot of people don’t understand it’s meant to be a choice and if you’re ever forced to wear it that goes against the principles of Islam because it’s supposed to be the woman deciding to wear it to liberate herself.”

Ahmad rejects the common misconception that women who wear headscarves are always oppressed; she believes if women are only recognized when they are showing skin, they’re being objectified.

“It’s just a piece of cloth around your head and people fear a really pretty scarf,” Ahmad said.

Although Ahmad had a different cultural background than most of her peers, this didn’t stop her from taking steps in achieving her dream of becoming a doctor.

It’s just a piece of cloth around your head and people fear a really pretty scarf.

DOCTOR DREAMS

Her first biology class in ninth grade catalyzed her love for science. She is now pursuing neuroscience as her pre-med major, has volunteered at the hospital, worked in a biochemistry lab, became a Daniels Scholar, shadowed a pediatrician and is participating in an internship for CU Anschutz and Kaiser Permanente.

“Getting this internship is probably the best way to symbolize all the little and big things that have made me want to become a doctor,” Ahmad said. “I’ve always had a little voice in my head of doubt, questioning whether I am good enough to be a doctor. I’ve learned that I can’t let those doubts and pointless worries enable me and I always grow the most when I put myself out there.”

I’ve always had a little voice in my head of doubt, questioning whether I am good enough to be a doctor.

Tegethoff believes Ahmad’s kind personality will make her an even stronger doctor.

“I would describe Aya as the kindest and most understanding person,” Tegethoff says. “If there is ever an instance to help someone, she is the first person to volunteer. She is the last to judge a person and the last to say something mean about anyone or anything.”

SERVING THE UNDERSERVED

Ahmad hopes to become a doctor who serves in underserved communities, something that will force her to live outside of her bubble, she says.

“I feel like every day you are put in a situation where you see how life and one’s health have affected another person and their loved ones,” Ahmad says. “You can never be comfortable because medicine isn’t just a science, politics are inevitably involved. You work with people who may not believe in vaccines, might be terrified of you solely because you’re a doctor, or just have certain cultural or political beliefs that in the end affect the way you take care of them and their health.”

muslim asian woman doctor, Professional muslim doctor working in hospital, healthcare and medicine
Photo via Envato Elements
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