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I used to frequent the Arb when I was in undergrad at the University of Michigan. I loved the colorful garden, the singing birds and the flowing river. For me, it was the perfect escape from the fast-paced life of student groups, difficult pre-med classes and stressful research. There was one bench in particular that I enjoyed more than any other. Facing the water and surrounded by greenery, this bench was special. By turning one’s head to the left, one can clearly see the large windows of Mott Children’s Hospital towering like a giant over the trees. I distinctly remember looking up at the fascinating building many times wondering to myself if I would ever have the opportunity to work in that hospital as a student. There was nothing I wanted more than to call myself a Michigan medical student.

It is for this reason that, after years of hopeful daydreaming, I was shocked to find myself not entirely at peace when I received the long-awaited acceptance to Michigan Medical School. After a few days of soul searching, I realized the reason for these unexpected emotions. An acceptance to medical school, especially one as esteemed as Michigan, meant that I had to sacrifice some of the activities I enjoyed, I thought to myself. After all, medical school is hard; there is no time for non-professional activities. I resigned myself to the idea that no matter how much I enjoyed planning events for the Arab Student Association, choreographing dance groups for the Arab Xpressions cultural show or leading spring break service trips with the Muslim Student Association in undergrad, there was simply no time for non-medicine-related activities in this new stage in life.

I started M1 year like a “good medical student.” I studied hard for my classes, I worked on research projects and my free time was dedicated to getting some much-needed rest. A few months in, however, I realized that something was missing. My passion for spirituality, community leadership and mentorship were incompletely fulfilled by my current medical school routine. Specifically, by not working with my cultural or religious communities like I had in undergrad, I felt purposeless. After catching up with an old friend studying at a medical school on the East Coast and realizing that he felt similarly, we decided to do something about it.

Taking advantage of Michigan’s flexible curriculum, my weekends started to consist of long drives and flights to medical schools across the country. From Chicago to DC, I began to meet with Muslim students at other medical schools to learn more about their experiences and discuss the prospect of a faith-based professional development group. By the start my clinical year, conversations had transformed into resume workshops in Detroit, clothing drives in Philadelphia, Ramadan dinners in San Francisco and more. The American Muslim Medical Student Association (AMMSA) was born. By the end of clinical year, AMMSA had grown to over 70 schools and hosted the first-ever national Muslim Medical Conference consisting of more than 300 students in Ann Arbor. A quarter of those attending hailed from communities underrepresented in medicine.

Clinical year is often described as a year solely for studying and time in the hospital. However, for me, it consisted of long meetings, travel to other cities and learning the logistics of maintaining a 501(c)(3). It was difficult: I sacrificed some sleep and time otherwise spent on traditional aspects of career development. In exchange, however, I felt fulfilled. I woke up every morning filled with energy and purpose. I learned how to manage large groups of people and manage time effectively. I even learned the fundamentals of fundraising and large event planning.

Now, approaching my fourth year of medical school and looking back at the AMMSA journey, it is clear that medical school is not a place where passions and interests come to die in exchange for rigid medical education. It is a platform where ideas can become a reality and have real-life impact. If it wasn’t for medical school, I would not have had the opportunity to connect with hundreds of other local leaders striving to improve the health of their communities. I would not have the support of my institution in taking big chances. And I would not have developed a passion for mentorship.

Now, when I go to the Arb and sit on the bench near the river overlooking Mott Children’s Hospital, my perspective is entirely different. Whereas before, it was a gaze of longing and hope of finally reaching the destination of medical school at Michigan, now it is an understanding that medical school at Michigan was never the end destination. It is simply another valued step in the lifelong journey of self-development and service.