At the University’s spring commencement in April 2007, then-LSA senior Abdul El-Sayed stood at a podium in Michigan Stadium and said that, besides the fact that BTB Burrito is open until 4 a.m., what truly sets the University of Michigan apart is its students.
“It’s the care we’ve shown, the people we’ve helped and the passion that we have that define us,” said El-Sayed, who was the student speaker at the ceremony. “Moreover, it’s the fact that we’re about to go out into a world that absolutely needs us.”
If El-Sayed’s definition of the Michigan Difference is right, then he could be its poster boy.
El-Sayed, who is now pursuing a joint doctorate in medicine and public health at the University, was named Sunday one of 32 American recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious academic scholarships. It covers tuition and expenses for two to three years of study at the University of Oxford in England and is valued at about $50,000 per year.
The last time a University student won the scholarship was in 2004.
A Bloomfield Hills native, El-Sayed was Vice President of the Muslim Students’ Association, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and a starting defenseman on the Michigan men’s lacrosse team. He married his girlfriend, LSA senior Sarah Jukaku, after his junior year of college.
Now in medical school and the School of Public Health at the University, El-Sayed’s research focus is within epidemiology. He said his ideal career would involve conducting academic research 80 percent of the time and working with patients 20 percent of the time.
When he enters Oxford in October, he will work toward a Master of Science in global health sciences.
Though his focus on epidemiology wasn’t piqued until after finishing his undergraduate studies, he said he’s been interested in medicine since his childhood.
El-Sayed said he e-mailed many professors before starting medical school because he wanted to try his hand at research. Epidemiology Prof. Sandro Galea was the only one who responded, and has now been El-Sayed’s doctoral adviser for the past two years, he said.
Prof. Galea said that although he usually doesn’t let students volunteer with his research team, he let El-Sayed join because he was so persistent.
After a “very short period of time, he was exceptional,” Galea said, adding that El-Sayed’s intelligence and hard-working nature, which he called an “uncommon combination,” will lead the scholar to impact many fields.
“I think he’s a perfect candidate for Rhodes,” he said. “He’s highly deserving and exactly the type of person who should get such a scholarship.”
El-Sayed said his current interest in the social determinants of health started after reading a research study that showed how the effects of the 9/11 attacks increased the risk for low birth weight among Arab-American women in California. He said he wanted to see if there were similar effects in Michigan.
“One thing led to another, and I just fell in love with the science, and that’s kind of all she wrote,” he said.
El-Sayed said preparing his application and practicing interviews took “many, many hours.”
He met individually with eight people from the University who interviewed him to get the University’s endorsement, which is required to be considered for the scholarship. Then, he said, he focused on “rewriting and rewriting and rewriting my personal statement to get it just right.”
In the weeks leading up to his final interview in Minnesota this past weekend, El-Sayed said he constantly drilled himself to practice how he might answer questions.
“I’d be working out, and I’d just be interviewing myself,” he said.
He said he was asked everything in his final interview from how communism affected public health to whether the 1967 Arab-Israeli War was an “accident.”
Fiona Rose, a University alum who won the Rhodes Scholarship in 1998, started helping El-Sayed early this year with his application preparation, which included editing at least seven drafts of his 1,000 word personal statement.
“He’s wonderful. He’s smart, he’s personable, he’s sincere, he cares a lot about other people,” she said. “It couldn’t happen to a better person.”
She said the scholarship will help him gain a more international perspective in his research, while allowing him access to a host of people and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to him.
More than 1,500 students each year seek their institution’s endorsement for the Rhodes Scholarship. This year, 209 applicants from 107 colleges and universities reached the final stage of the competition.
El-Sayed also won the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which sponsors education in the United Kingdom. But he said he will forego the Marshall because it doesn’t fund the program he wants.
He said he’s excited to study at such a “historic” university and to work with people who have similar research goals in the public health field.
“It’s kind of surreal still, but at the same time, I think it’s an awesome opportunity to represent my state, my country and other Muslim Americans in my situation,” he said.
His wife Sarah said that after he decided to apply, they both were committed to helping him work toward the award.
“Both of us had to go into it 100 percent sure that this is what we want to do,” she said. “He was really pumped up and ready to go.”
She said that while there are many talented people, El-Sayed’s dedication and drive set him apart from his peers.
“One thing you know, if you know Abdul, is that he’s an extremely, extremely passionate person,” she said. “He doesn’t do anything halfway.”
She said El-Sayed is “extremely idealistic, which some people might take as a bad thing, but you don’t really change the world if you don’t have the hope that you can do it in the first place.”
She relayed a story of his high school chemistry teacher telling him that he wasn’t smart enough to learn chemistry. When she met him, he was teaching organic chemistry at the University.
“If someone tells him he can’t do something, that means he’s going to put all of his effort into trying to do it,” she said.
Along with winning the award, El-Sayed has led a medical mission to Peru and co-founded Healing at Home, which raises money for a local health clinic.
Though he got a chance to celebrate with his family Sunday, El-Sayed doesn’t have much time to slow down.
“I’ve got a huge exam on Monday, so hopefully I can find some time to study and pass my exam and enjoy my vacation,” he said.