Health and Behavior

Burning desire to pay it forward

Afghan native says he owes JMU


SUMMARY: Ahmad Abdul-Ali feels strongly that the best way to repay all the people at JMU who helped him achieve his goal of a medical degree is to someday provide his services in one of Virginia's most needy communities.

Ahmad Abdul-Ali has an amazing story.

The 2012 JMU alumnus credits JMU with playing a pivotal role in his journey from Afghani refugee to first-year medical resident.

Born in 1989, Abdul-Ali fled war-torn Kabul for northern Afghanistan and eventually Turkmenistan. After 10 years in Russian-speaking Turkmenistan, his family found its way to the United States thanks to having been accepted into a competitive refugee education program.

Once in the U.S., Abdul-Ali continued his education and honing of his English language skills, eventually moving to Virginia to finish high school and then beginning his Madison Experience.

Although technically a health sciences major, “I took enough biology and chemistry that I could almost have had three majors,” he says, adding that JMU’s academic rigor “set me up well for medical school.”

Through it all, Abdul-Ali has learned to ask for help. “I’m very open to asking for help. If I need help, I’ll just ask right away for it,” he explains. “I used a lot of JMU’s resources when I was there. For example, I pretty much did all my homework at Madison Learning Center.” Although fluent in four different languages, he still made extensive use of the writing centers on campus — and his professors.

“When my professors had office hours, I was regularly there,” Abdul-Ali says. “Really, when it comes to the people of JMU, I got so much help.”

Dr. Sharon Babcock “was one of the first people I met at JMU when I decided to go into medicine, and she basically showed me everything that I needed to do, what classes I needed to take, just everything,” Abdul-Ali says. “We still stay in touch. She is wonderful.”

His desire to be a doctor was also borne in part through experience.

“Living in all the different countries, from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan to the United States, I have seen how doctors treat patients. I want to practice medicine because I want to help people, and with my specialty in general surgery, I feel like I can do that well. Surgery can change people in positive ways, and I want to be a part of that.”

Abdul-Ali sees himself returning to rural Virginia.

“Not a lot of surgeons stay in general surgery, choosing instead to specialize because of the money and the lifestyle,” he says, “but to me,
general surgery is what people need the most — especially people who live in rural areas. That is my long-term goal.”

First up is five years of general surgery residency, a time during which he says that he expects to call on “all the learning that I have done everywhere, and especially the amazing preparation from my college days at JMU.”

Abdul-Ali is especially proud of his JMU roots.

“JMU is a unique place,” he says. “I feel fortunate that it is part of my story.” 

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Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2020

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