On her first day at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine in 2014, Aaima Sayed was at a press conference. While most students deal with their fair share of academic stress, Sayed and five other undocumented students also faced national attention.
Sayed, 28, was one of the first undocumented students to attend Stritch — the first medical school in the country to accept students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) back in 2014. Those six students — along with one whose immigration status changed while attending Stritch — graduated May 12.
DACA, an Obama-era policy, gives legal protection to children who entered the country illegally before they turned 16. Individuals under DACA are able to renew their deferment every two years to study and work in the United States.
This policy has protected about 800,000 undocumented immigrants and allowed Sayed to go to medical school.
However, DACA students have been in limbo since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Immigration issues were cornerstone in Trump’s presidential campaign, and last fall, he said DACA would be terminated.
Mark Kuczewski, chair of Department of Medical Education and ethics professor at Stritch, said this uncertainty is the biggest obstacle DACA students at Stritch deal with.
“Medical school is hard,” he said. “You have to be very very focused on an everyday basis and at the same time they occasionally have to come up for air and check on the environment and what’s happening and do the appropriate thing and try to advocate for change … they have a chance to be a voice for DACA recipients who can’t speak out quite the way they can.”
This is something Sayed said she thinks about often, but she usually maintains a positive attitude towards life despite obstacles.
“At times it’s very disheartening to hear all these things in the news,” she said. “Everyone, I think, just needs to stay strong and have a lot of faith that things will work out. They need to focus on what’s in front of them and just work hard on what they’re doing.”
Now, Stritch has 27 DACA students, which is one third of all medical students under DACA in the U.S., according to Kuczewski.
A Pakistani immigrant, Sayed and her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old. Sayed said her parents split up after moving, and she and her older brother were raised by their mother.
Her mother, Mahnoor Sayed, said Aaima was a shy, polite child growing up. She said faith played a role in her daughter’s motivation and she is optimistic for her daughter’s future.
“I see her future [as] very bright,” she said. “I’m really proud of my daughter Aaima. She really worked hard and she achieved her dreams even though she went through very tough [times] and hardship.”
For Aaima, her dream started when she pursued her undergraduate degree at Rutgers University.
Medical school wasn’t Sayed’s first path. Sayed said she originally wanted to pursue a career in business, but she later changed her major to psychology and set her sights on medical school.
Sayed said she was interested in the medical aspect of psychology, and her experience with doctors during an emergency hospital visit further solidified her choice to go to medical school.
“I was on the other side of things,” she said. “I was a patient and I could see how just a little bit of compassion and just care from the doctors made me feel so much better even though I was in so much pain.”
After undergrad, Sayed applied to medical schools twice. Her first application cycle occurred shortly after former President Barack Obama introduced DACA. By the next cycle, Sayed could obtain her work permit and received more interviews from schools.
Sayed said she knew Stritch was the right place for her when she interviewed.
“I just fell in love,” she said. “People were so kind and supportive and you could just tell it was a very welcoming institution and I was just so hopeful and was really really hoping I would get admission over here.”
Sayed received her acceptance call in October 2013 and said she felt overcome with emotion.
“I was trying to prevent myself from just bursting out into tears,” she said. “I was getting very emotional and extremely happy. It felt like all that hard work I put in — my dreams were finally going to come to fruition and come true.”
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has advocated for DACA recipients by reintroducing legislation to protect them from deportation. Sayed was his guest at President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2017 and shared her story on the Senate floor in 2015.
Sayed’s next step is a psychiatry residency at the Loyola University Medical Center which provides paid training to medical school graduates. Following that, Sayed will work in an underserved community in Illinois — a requirement per her student loan agreement.
Kuczewski said he thought Sayed and the other DACA students had unique strengths because of their lifelong perseverance.
“People would say to them ‘Without papers how could you possibly be a doctor?’” he said. “The students who have matriculated at Stritch are really extraordinary because they didn’t take that for an answer.”
Disclaimer: Phoenix Editor-in-Chief Henry Redman is an intern in Senator Durbin’s office. He didn’t assign or edit this story.