Merna Abdelhalem is completing her St. Francis College career one step closer to her dream of becoming a doctor.
Having immigrated with her family from Egypt when she was about eight years old, Merna will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. A resident of Queens, Merna attended The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria before making her way to Brooklyn Heights for college as a biology major. She is currently working on her medical school applications.
Merna recently reflected on her St. Francis College journey and what's in store for her next.
How did you decide to attend St. Francis College?
I actually applied to St. Francis completely last minute, around March my senior year.
I had already applied to 21 schools. I started getting bombarded with acceptance letters and financial aid packages.
I was in my college counselor's office with my dad and we were trying to make a decision. She said, "Did you apply to St. Francis? You probably should. It has everything you want."
And I literally got on the computer right there and applied. It must have been a month later, I got my acceptance and then a couple of days later I got from my financial aid package. They were super quick with it. I thought, "if they're so quick, that means they care. They're going to be devoted to their students."
You also received a McGuire Scholarship, which provides "last dollar funding" to fill the gap between other aid and total tuition costs. Did that influence your decision?
At first, I didn't completely understand what it was. I thought it was only an academic scholarship. Then I looked it up and I started reading about it. My college counselor also explained it to me.
For me, I was scared of leaving high school because I was used to such a small community. I knew that St. Francis was small, but having this scholarship meant I had an even smaller group of people, the other scholars, to be part of. I knew I would be doing events with them. I think that's what pushed me [to St. Francis College] at the end of the day.
You planned to go to med school before you arrived at St. Francis. How did that dream start?
Starting when I was around five years old, I would play doctor all the time. I played with my stuffed animals as if I was their doctor.
My uncle called me "my little doctor." That's my nickname. That was something that stayed the same for his whole life. He gave me a toy doctor kit, and that was my first toy that I was super attached to. Right before he passed away [while I was in high school], I got to see him, and he still said, "little Dr. Merna." He started it and then family members up picked it up afterwards.
When he passed away, I lost some motivation to [pursue medicine]. But I got back to it. I was like, I have to do this because not only did I see myself [as a doctor], he saw me that way too. I know it would break his heart for me not to do something that I wanted to do.
Are there specific people at St. Francis College that kept you motivated?
Between my sophomore and junior year, I got a job. I was working and running from one borough to the next, and my grades started dropping. I remember sitting in Dr. Victoria Ruiz's office [in the biology department], telling her "I don't think I can do this. There's no way I'm going to get into med school." She said that I need to believe in myself and do this for myself because nobody believing in me is going to push me enough to do anything. I will remember her saying that to me for the rest of my life, because it's completely true.
I also went to Australia for study abroad. I was completely homesick, to the point I didn't want to go to class there. I took four classes and failed one. I just couldn't do it. When I got back. Dr. Kathleen Nolan [Chair of the Biology and Health Promotion Department] told me to just re-take the class. That's all I could do. She said to just stop being such a baby about it. And because of her I re-took the class. And I knew that I'd be fine.
Also the McGuire community. I'd go to Anthony Desiderio, the McGuire advisor at least once a week my first year. Or I'd go to
Mr. [Thomas] Flood, [Vice President of Advancement], and have a conversation with him.
You're applying now to start medical school in fall 2021. What will you do for the next year?
I really want to be in healthcare of some sort during this gap year. I want to feel like I'm doing as much as I possibly can to just help out with what's happening [with the COVID pandemic]. I don't really care what I do, as long as I'm there doing something that would benefit a hospital or the healthcare community.
How do you feel about completing your St. Francis College career?
Bittersweet. We are such a community. We're one building. You know every single person that's going to walk by, either by name or by face. That's just how it works there. I'm going to miss that so much.
At right: Merna with Thomas Flood