From Foster Care to Medical School
First-year med student Aleksandra Hussain overcame obstacles in her pursuit of helping others
Aleksandra Hussain’s journey to medical school was inspired by her childhood in foster care.
The only time she and her younger sister saw a doctor was when they were transferring from one foster home to another. Regular checkups and routine care were not part of her life.
“Being exposed to these types of disparities motivates me to pursue medicine in a way that improves health care for everyone,” she said.
Hussain, a first-year medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School is open about her story of overcoming obstacles to help inspire others.
Her parents were immigrants: Her mother moved to the United States from Poland and her father from Pakistan. The family lived in their home in Elizabeth for a short time before Hussain’s father was deported, leaving her mom to raise her and her younger sister alone.
Hussain’s mother 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 7, Hussain and her 5-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 Hussain 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 Hussain’s primary concern. Hussain 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 Hussain 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, Hussain remained at the same high school in Belleville, New Jersey, 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.”
Hussain 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,” Hussain 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.”
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.”
Hussain 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.”
She also hopes that her story will serve to inspire others who face seemingly insurmountable challenges.
“Growing up, I felt that I had a responsibility to succeed so that one day I could speak to children in foster care and share my story with them so they could feel hope and also know their future is so bright,’’ Hussain said. “I felt it was important to share with others that your past does not define you and we all have the ability to create a bright future for ourselves.’’
“At the same time, it is important to not forget our past and to continuously reflect on our perseverance and resilience and for me my past is what created my passion to help others,’’ she said. “I hope my story gives encouragement to others and lets them know they can do it too."