Amal El bakhar ’11 (Hunter)

When it was time to consider colleges, Amal El bakhar was limited to schools in New York City. Even though Amal describes herself as “the one who sort of stands out and says ‘I’m going to break down some barriers,’” in a conservative Muslim family like hers, she says,

“Daughters don’t leave the house.” After considering offers from NYU, Columbia, and Fordham, Amal decided to matriculate to Hunter College as a Macaulay Scholar. Once there, she set about pursuing the interests she’d fostered as a highly engaged and exceptional student at the Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Queens. “I’ve always wanted to do medicine,” she says. “I’ve always loved solving equations and problems—I guess that drew me to math, and math drew me to the sciences.”

As a biochemistry major, some of Amal’s favorite courses at Hunter were honors biology courses that, she says, “were really small, just 20 students. I fell in love with the professors and the level of interaction.” But it wasn’t until she took a women and gender studies course in order to fulfill a requirement that she realized a double major might be the way to go: “I thought, ‘Hey, everything that I don’t believe in that everyone values in my family is embodied in this course.’ So I took another course and just decided to continue.”

Amal supplemented this intense academic schedule with a focused selection of demanding extracurricular pursuits. She participated in the internship program at NYU Medical Center, which draws interns from across the country. She volunteered at Bellevue Hospital for the four years she was in college, ultimately running the volunteer program. That experience led to an opportunity to work with Dr. Paul Testa, an MD/JD and attending physician in the ER at the NYU Medical Center.

“His focus is mostly on minorities in the public hospitals in New York City,” Amal explains. “He spends half his time downstairs in the ER and the rest of the time [in his office] working out the policies on how to better regulate and practice safe medicine.”

While one could think that her academic and career interests could present an area of conflict with her family and culture, she credits her father, a Moroccan-born architect, with supporting her, even when he doesn’t agree with her. “He’s extraordinary,” Amal says, with a great deal of pride in her voice. “Although he doesn’t believe in all the values I believe in, he appreciates me for me. I can’t explain how pivotal that’s been in defining myself. Within my family dynamic the expected role of the woman is to become a housewife and stay at home mostly. But my dad’s support has allowed me to deviate from that.”

She also credits the Macaulay support system for helping her achieve goals that may have been otherwise challenging. “I feel like Macaulay supported…me wanting to be different and wanting to overcome the barriers that I see in my family.” She cites as an example her desire to apply for a prestigious Coro Fellowship for Public Affairs and Civic Leadership, the winning of which would have meant traveling to Pittsburgh and other cities over the summer of 2011. “My family said, ‘You’re a woman, not married, you can’t live on your own.’ And then I go to Macaulay and they say ‘Yeah, we can help you get that, let’s work on the application process.’”

She was indeed accepted as one of only sixty 2011 Coro Fellows. Once Amal has completed that program she plans to pursue a dual MD/JD, and, eventually, “become the executive director of the World Health Organization.” She laughs a little at the specificity of her ambition, but is serious about where she sees herself in the future: “I will be a physician, but I feel like my most important goal is to train women in different countries—and even in the United States—on how to provide basic health care needs. I feel like you can help tons of people in your lifetime, but the only way you can leave lasting change is by teaching others who will be there in the next generations, and by changing the policies.”

Amal values the unique perspective her Muslim background affords her and believes that her experience with Muslim culture gave her an urgency and understanding that most of her classmates didn’t have. “I value medicine much more than I think the average person in my other classes does,” she says. “I also value freedom and women’s rights much more than the average person in my women and gender studies courses.” This particular viewpoint prompted Amal to write her honors thesis on Iran’s family planning program. “It’s the number one family programming program in the world and nobody expects that. They have an extraordinary reproductive health program and one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world because of it.” She continues: “People often see a clash between Muslim culture and reproductive health…. I personally don’t see it that way. I see it as a collective thing. Having the background and knowing the culture helps me bridge what most people perceive as a gap.”

When she looks back on her time at Macaulay, Amal says: “I have no regrets whatsoever. I‘ve gotten so much more than I would have ever expected—even if I had gone to an Ivy League instead of Macaulay I feel like I would have never done what I’ve done here. It’s a feeling of being constantly supported. That’s what I love most—the support system and the diversity of students.”

As for whatever challenges might lie ahead with her family as she makes her way to the Executive Directorship of the WHO, Amal is characteristically positive and good-humored: “It serves as a source of strength for me for the most part,” she says. “It ignites the fire in me.”