Mena Hashim aspires to be an excellent physician, and not just because she excels at organic chemistry. She also credits her life experience as the driving force behind her passion for compassionate medicine. “My family had difficult experiences with doctors when we emigrated to the U.S. as refugees,” Mena explained. “I noticed that patients were treated as identical, and cultural differences were not respected or acknowledged.”
Her family’s struggle to educate physicians about their culture prompted her to switch her pre-med major at the University of Colorado Denver from biology to ethnic studies. “I wanted to do more than study cells under a microscope,” she said. “I wanted to understand the people that will be my patients.”
However, it wasn’t just those difficulties that changed Mena’s approach to her future profession. Her childhood in war-torn in Iraq, and her years as a refugee—first in the Middle East, then in the United States—also influenced her desire to be sensitive to her patients’ background and experiences.
A difficult childhood
Mena was born in Iraq, and she lived through six years of war before her family received permission to leave. They spent seven years as refugees in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan because her mother failed to find stable employment. When Mena’s family emigrated to the United States, they were totally reliant on the assistance of volunteers for everything, from information about how to register as refugees to how to buy groceries.
Although the family found safety in the U.S., financial security eluded them. Mena’s mother took any job she could find with her limited English skills and worked long hours. Inspired by her mother’s example, Mena, too, studied hard and endured disparaging comments about her intelligence as she learned to speak English.
Mena’s hard work paid off, and as she began to excel in high school, teachers encouraged her to push herself academically. She frequently visited the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) Future Center, a resource center located in 12 Denver high schools that support students with their journey to college by providing college and financial aid advising. Upon graduation from South High School, she received a scholarship from DSF to attend CU Denver.
Scholarship provides direction, connection
Mena’s desire to succeed made her a natural candidate for a scholarship. “Denver Scholarship Foundation Scholars are an inspiration to many,” said Nate Easley, PhD, executive director of DSF. “They exemplify talent, drive, confidence and courage to overcome their challenges and achieve their life’s goals.”
For more information about the Denver Scholarship Foundation, events and ways to get involved, visit the Denver Scholarship Foundation website.
With a full class load and three jobs, Mena draws on all of those qualities, as well her compassion. As a research assistant at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, a peer mentor for TRiO Student Services, and a voting member of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ (CLAS) Academic Standards Committee, she aims to be sensitive toward the people she helps.
When she mentors students or reads their applications for academic exceptions, she views her work as a chance to understand the struggles and viewpoints of other cultures. Similarly, “at the VA hospital, I learn so much from the patients,” Mena said. “Some are elderly, some have lost homes, and I can relate to them through my own experience of moving from place to place.”
Mena also values the opportunities to volunteer at health fairs, and for student clubs at CU Denver, such as the Public Health Club and the Future Doctors Club. “In the past I struggled—to learn English, to understand the college application process—and I often felt isolated from the community,” Mena said. “But Denver Scholarship Foundation provided invaluable connections to mentors, support seminars and tutors. I want to give back in return.”
This desire to connect with a community is a shared value among DSF Scholars. Easley points out, “Having succeeded despite the challenges they face, our Scholars go on to give back to their community as volunteers and donors who are leading the future workforce.”
A survivor’s perspective
For Mena, everything—her coursework, her employment, her volunteer spirit— all contribute to her future as a physician. Combined with her experiences in a war zone and as a refugee, they have given her a survivor’s perspective. Because of the challenges that she has overcome, Mena jokes, “now, finishing a paper at 3 a.m. is no big deal. I keep everything in perspective. It could be so much worse.”
After she graduates, but before she applies to the CU School of Medicine, Mena is looking forward to her first truly voluntary move. She plans to take a year off and travel to Thailand to hike, study and teach yoga, and learn about health care in a Third World country. She hopes that the experience will deepen her gratitude for everything she’s accomplished so far.
“I’m so thankful,” she said. “Without help from volunteers and from Denver Scholarship Foundation, I would have been lost, and I couldn’t have had all of these opportunities.”