Newswise — On the surface, you would never know how hard life has been for Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School first-year student Aleksandra Hussain. She has a bright smile and is upbeat and confident, yet humble. Aleksandra shares her story with the hope of inspiring others.

Aleksandra’s parents met after her mother moved to the United States from Poland and her father from Pakistan. Unfortunately, the family was not in their home in Elizabeth, N.J., long before her dad was deported back to Pakistan, leaving her mom to raise her and her younger sister alone.

Aleksandra’s mom was a nurse in Poland, but in the United States she was only able to get work cleaning and doing odd jobs. As it became harder to pay rent and put food on the table, the family visited soup kitchens for many of their meals.

“My mom always did her best to take care of me and my sister. Although I knew we were struggling, I only have good memories of visiting the soup kitchens. The workers let me and my sister pick out clothes and toys. It was a warm place to be.”

Eventually, her mother’s efforts were not enough. At seven, Aleksandra and her five-year-old sister Gloria, were taken out of their mother’s care. The girls were eventually placed in eight different foster homes and one women’s shelter.

When Aleksandra was 11, her mom went back to Poland to care for her dying mother. Now, with both of her parents out of the country, continued foster care was certain so her sister’s well-being became Aleksandra’s primary concern. Aleksandra took that responsibility seriously and under the guidance of a caring attorney, she learned to be an advocate for herself and her sister.

This experience helped Aleksandra become more focused on achieving something better for herself. School became the perfect escape from her troubling reality.

Thanks to the strong recommendation of her teachers and principal who fought to keep her in the district, Aleksandra remained at the same high school in Belleville, N.J. regardless of where she lived.

At 14, she enrolled in the high school’s cosmetology program which led to a job in a hair salon in Nutley. She was living in a foster home in Newark and would take the bus to the salon, but it was worth it. Her boss became one of her biggest supporters. 

“I learned how important it was to have a good work ethic, and to be well spoken and professional while continuing to learn a trade. I liken my experience in the salon to the medical field because in many ways, clients are like patients. Both industries are constantly evolving and you are always learning from the people above you.”

Aleksandra continued working at the salon and hoped it would help pay for college. Fortunately, she was able to get scholarships which afforded her the opportunity to attend Seton Hall University.  

Following the advice of her mentor and boss at the hair salon, “to seek what is hard and do what others are afraid to do,” Aleksandra decided to major in biology because it was challenging. Once she started shadowing, she realized the quality of health care she lacked while in the foster care system.

“Each time we changed foster homes, we had to go to the emergency department for a physical exam before being placed in a new home. That was my only experience in receiving care. The idea that doctors ask you how you are was completely foreign to me.”

“Being exposed to these types of disparities motivates me to pursue medicine in a way that improves health care for everyone.”

Her search for medical schools started and ended when members from RWJMS visited Seton Hall. “I did more research about the school and I attended every event they held. Every time I visited, it felt like home. I knew it was where I was meant to be.”

Aleksandra plans to specialize in Obstetrics and Gynecology, providing care to underserved communities. She is looking ahead but not forgetting the past.

 “I know I have a purpose in life and I look at all of the challenges I have faced as a way to better connect with my future patients. I look forward to when I am a doctor and I will provide help to the homeless community, treat children in the foster system with compassion, and serve at soup kitchens while treating everyone with respect and dignity.”