Changing Lives in Uganda | Work and Activities: Pre-Health
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
How can I stand out among a pool of hundreds of thousands?
The truth is, there is no single correct, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Across various fields and divergent life plans, no single activity can best serve all students. There is no right or wrong. However, asking the right supplementary questions can help establish a pathway towards our destination.
The best, often most undervalued question to ask is: How can I help others within the scope of my desired field? Syedna Mufaddal Saifudeen (TUS) states in his nazm mubarak “Allamal Insaana Ma Lam Yalum”:
سارے علم و معرفت كی روح ہے نفع العباد
The essence of all knowledge and understanding is to be of benefit to your fellow man
To attainers of higher knowledge, and especially those focused on healthcare careers, this is paramount. We all have various reasons as to why we do what we do, but the essence should remain the same: to use our potential to help others. In that vein, working towards more selfless extracurricular initiatives over personal ones, was a guiding philosophy in my choices.
A good measure for extracurriculars is to ask: Does this help me gain the knowledge I will need for my field? Putting yourself in a position where you can learn, whether formally or informally, prior to your actual professional studies, is advantageous and shines on any applications. Academics and test scores (MCAT, etc.) always come first, but learning opportunities through extracurriculars can be a testament to a strong applicant that already has a leg up on other potential students. These include extracurriculars where you are required to display your learned knowledge, such as research publications, poster presentations or conference events. Additionally, leadership positions, where you must learn to manage and organize from a position of power, are also key extracurriculars that help you learn the social skills needed for any higher education field. Learning opportunities may present themselves in more subtle ways as well: starting a new organization or event, tutoring high school students within your field, or writing articles for a field-related publication, are all examples of extracurriculars that can help you gain expertise in your field, before you actually get there.
I personally sought to learn prior to my professional studies by working in research labs consistently throughout my undergraduate career. I began as an intern in a microbiology lab, essentially working in a lab technician and research understudy combination role. From there, I moved on to a cancer research lab, where I spent the next 2.5 years. I also had the amazing opportunity to take graduate medical courses, taught by medical school professors, as an undergraduate. Opportunities like these abound, and are always available for those who seek them out. Towards the end of my undergraduate career, I worked as a scribe for a primary care physician, gaining an insider understanding of the field, contributing to care and solidifying my desire to become a doctor. As an added plus, I also gained a valuable mentor. In my spare time, I conducted research in emergency departments at an inner city hospital, allowing me to observe a different side of medicine that I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated.
One of the opportunities I pursued, joining a student run organization called Globemed, led me to spend 6 weeks of the summer in rural Uganda, in what was perhaps my most impactful and memorable work. I was initially hesitant, as I viewed service trips, and the student organizations that led them, skeptically. Volunteer trips abroad can often be resume fillers for students, and provide no real help to the people in need. They can fuel dependency, corruption, and a sense of entitlement amongst those with the means to go on such trips. However GlobeMed is a student-run group that is partnered with a NGO (non-governmental organization that provides aid) on the ground in Uganda. Unlike other service groups, we maintained a long-standing relationship with our NGO spanning several years. We spoke with them year-round, and knew the details of their work intimately. We believed in partnership, not dependency, and we worked alongside the local NGO, instead of working over them. One summer, I was chosen to be one of the annual representatives that visits the NGO.
I used the same thinking listed above when deciding to pursue this activity: Would I be able to help people within the scope of healthcare? Would it resemble work I wanted to do in the future? Would I gain knowledge I would need for my field? Satisfied with the answer, and with the aid of Moula’s raza mubarak, I embarked on this journey, knowing that I would be safe and protected.
Our time in Uganda was difficult living. Our partners in the area- a small town near the Uganda-Sudan border built around a single paved road- were affiliated with the local church. We ate our meals with them, and lived in a small motel (the only one in the town) that had access to clean water (a rarity). The NGO supported school and clinic, alongside the church, served as the town’s main center and gathering places. Most families lived scattered along dirt roads branching out from the road. Poverty, HIV, orphaned children, and illicit activities were rampant.
Our organization supported a wide range of efforts including a school health program, a clinic, an interest-free microloan (a qardan hasana, so to speak) and livestock program, a fresh water initiative, and a skills building program for women. Starting our days early, we would typically start our days at the clinic and school, before checking up and doing the accounting work for the loan and skills programs. Several afternoons, we would travel to remote villages without any healthcare access to set up a temporary clinic. All of our efforts were built with the goal of sustainability and local work, so our colleagues were all from the community, and nominal fees were set so that programs could become self-sufficient. Aside from being imparted with the usual emotions poverty inspires, I took away something else as well: the excitement that comes with seeing how little it takes to create such monumental changes in people’s lives.
Some may be reluctant to travel to such remote parts of the world or pursue such opportunities. Some may claim that namaaz, taharat, and other requirements may preclude such travel. But shariat is samha (tolerant), and there are always ways to maintain one’s deen, even when in rural areas without amenities. I would ensure that I never missed namaz, even when we were working, by always keeping a travel masalo and water for wuzu with me. I never ate anything of questionable origins, and I even did zabihat myself on occasion! Additionally, even though I travelled to a new country where I knew no one, mumineen from Kampala still invited me into their home and fed me.
Ultimately, I am proud of the work that I did in uplifting that community, and I believe it helped me reach where I am today. It was an activity that was frequently asked about in interviews, and I remember it fondly to this day. It allowed me to help others, inspired passion within me, and taught me the importance of healthcare and physicians in a community.
May Allah Taala grant our Moula and our haadi, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddeen, a life of sehat until the Day of qiyammat, and may we continue to adhere to his guidance through the challenges of deen and duniya. Ameen!
Authored By: Aliasghar Diwan (Touro COM 2nd-Year Student)
Edited for clarity and purpose by: Taher Lokhandwala