Love for Syria, children’s health inspires pre-med student Alaa Kuziez

Alaa Kuziez

(Photo by August Jennewein)

Four years ago, like most seniors in high school, Alaa Kuziez faced big changes. But in addition to the usual challenges, she and her family had just fled their home country of Syria.

“The hardest part of it is you’re leaving family behind, and you’re leaving your friends that you’ve spent all your childhood with, for a strange place called Missouri that you’ve never been to,” says Kuziez, now a senior biology major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “It was definitely a huge transition.”

On top of adapting to a vastly different home and language, she had unexpected academic decisions to make. In Syria, Kuziez had pursued Arabic poetry, fully intending to continue down that track. But that no longer seemed feasible upon landing in English-speaking St. Louis in the wake of her home country’s civil war.

“That’s something I couldn’t continue,” says Kuziez, who was born in the U.S. but moved back to Syria with her parents and sisters when she was very young. “So I thought, ‘I want to try something new.’ I didn’t know what I was about to get myself into.”

In the summer of 2013, after graduating from Parkway West High School in Ballwin, Mo., she volunteered at a free health clinic, which set her on a path toward becoming a doctor.

“The clinic was founded by Muslim physicians, and I was able to talk with them about how they built themselves up here and went through the same process. I felt like, ‘That’s me right now,’” she says. Along with checking patients in and recording medical histories, Kuziez served as a translator, drawing on her bilingual abilities.

“That was the changing moment, because it was very satisfying for the patient, and I was able to bridge that gap between the patient and the physician,” she says. “I wanted to contribute to that and have an impact on someone’s life and make it better.”

After a year at St. Louis Community College–Meramec, Kuziez received a scholarship through Phi Theta Kappa to attend UMSL, and in the fall of 2014 she took an introductory biology course that put her resolve to the test.

“I set high standards for myself, and one day I was crying, because I couldn’t do it,” she recalls. “My instructor saw me very frustrated, and he talked to me and reminded me that I was a good student and always going for excellence. That was a real encouragement that sticks in my mind.”

Her professor’s uplifting words about her are also very true, judging from her early acceptance into the highly selective UMKC Medical Scholars Program. That tentatively guarantees her a spot in the school’s M.D. program after she graduates from UMSL this fall. Still, she keeps a tattered MCAT study manual close at hand, with that key exam looming.

Hoping to one day return to Syria as a pediatrician and help to alleviate the suffering that some loved ones are still experiencing, Kuziez is full of gratitude about her own journey.

“Coming to the United States, my biggest fear was that I look different and speak a different language, and with all of the conflicts going on, sometimes you feel unwanted,” she says. “UMSL provided a safe atmosphere to acquire knowledge in. They didn’t judge me based on my religion or any of that. I felt equal and very welcomed, and UMSL also opened my eyes to science and helped me explore my options.”


This story was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of UMSL Magazine.

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