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Naima Alver has overcome extraordinary circumstances in her life to be where she’s at today: a second-year medical student at OHSU.

When Naima was 14 years old, she went to the hospital to address a severe eye injury. That visit turned out to be a calming experience to an otherwise difficult life.

“They asked if I felt safe,” Naima said of the hospital staff. “They were kind, compassionate and caring. It was one of the first times I felt like someone actually wanted what was good for me.” For Naima, this visit to the ER created a lasting connection to medicine.

Shortly after her hospital visit, Naima was placed into foster care. She juggled working full time, attending high school and extracurricular activities while experiencing bouts of houselessness. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t know how to get to a shelter. She would occasionally sleep in a hospital emergency room because she remembered it was a safe place, and they had internet for her to do her homework.

“Remembering what the doctors had done for me and wanting to work in medicine was what kept me in high school,” she said.

Despite briefly dropping out of high school, Naima was accepted into the University of Washington on academic probation. She found a support system in college to help navigate the various obstacles she continued to face. Naima graduated with two bachelor’s degrees: biology and English.

“I wanted to be a doctor for so long and sacrificed so much to become one. [Receiving the scholarship] was like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. It was security.”

While splitting her time between two jobs to pay for medical school applications, Naima kept working toward her goal of becoming a doctor. During the day, she worked on research. At night, she worked a graveyard shift at a restaurant.

On Christmas Eve 2018, Naima was accepted into the OHSU School of Medicine. “I didn’t really have a plan on how to pay for medical school,” she said. “I was going to take out a bunch of debt to live my dreams.”

A few months after her acceptance, Naima received an email that she was the recipient of the President’s Fund and Future Physicians Achievement award, providing a full-ride tuition scholarship to medical school.

“When I found out I received a full-ride scholarship, it felt like my heart stopped momentarily,” she said. “I wanted to be a doctor for so long and sacrificed so much to become one. It was like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. It was security.”

Being the change for others

Naima is now a second-year medical student at OHSU, who is thriving between passion projects, research, academics and mentorship. She’s passionate about improving diversity and representation in medicine.

Naima founded a program where medical students teach classes and mentor houseless immigrant teens. She is also a member of the diversity committee on the Thoracic Surgery Medical Student Association.

“I want to break the stigma that people who come from a poor background, had a rough upbringing, or made a few mistakes along the way aren’t capable of becoming doctors,” Naima said. “Having people from all different backgrounds and walks of life is what makes medicine beautiful and enriching. The reason I got to where I am today is because people believed in me.”

Naima is a member of the LGBTQ community and an aspiring surgeon. She wants to normalize her story, and make it more comfortable for those who come after her.

One of her favorite things about medicine is how the medical community tries to bring as much good as possible into the world. “It’s not just about science-based medicine,” she said. “But about healing the community in one shape or form.”

“Having people from all different backgrounds and walks of life is what makes medicine beautiful and enriching. The reason I got to where I am today is because people believed in me.”

When the Black Lives Matter protests began after the death of George Floyd, Naima and her fellow medical students put together a call-to-action video — to speak out about racial inequity and the importance of diversity within medicine.

“I came from an adverse background, but because I look like your all-American girl, nobody once doubted that I belonged in medical school,” she said. “That’s not the case for many students who are Black or brown — a lot of the time they have to prove they belong.”

Naima and a few of her fellow classmates are focused on uplifting the BIPOC community. Together, they want to provide access to medical education for diverse students with financial need and have recently established the Excellence and Equity in Medical Education Endowment.

Naima continues to work to create equitable opportunities for students through mentorship and as a board member on Physicians for Human Rights. Her dream is to empower others to create change.

“We need to open doors that have been sealed shut — to let other people in and help change the world,” she said.

Just like those who opened doors for her.