By Aysha Jamali
Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a self-described ambitious 25-year-old, has a passion for academia that has carried him from his native Michigan across the Atlantic to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
“To tell you the truth, when I applied I really didn’t think I had a shot. And when I was chosen it was first, I think, a bit of euphoria,” he said. “It’s one of those things you never really feel like you deserve in any way.”
According to MLive.com, El-Sayed was one of 32 students from around the nation chosen as a Rhodes Scholar for 2009, by which he is pursuing a doctoral degree in Public Health at the University of Oxford.
The Rhodes Scholarships, initiated in 1902, are the oldest international fellowships. According to the Rhodes Trust Web site, selection committees seek excellence in qualities of mind and person that offer the promise of effective service to the world. The Scholarships have a comprehensive set of criteria where intellectual excellence is required, but not in isolation from other qualities such as being physically and morally capable of leadership.
“I’m very distinct about my goals,” El-Sayed said. “Insofar as one believes that his or her goals mean something bigger than just the paper accomplishment, then he or she should seek to pursue
those goals and to accomplish them with a certain fervor and passion.”
He is also a medical student at the University of Michigan where he completed his undergraduate schooling, according to the Huffington Post where he is a contributing writer.
“I think I’ve always been ambitious,” he said. “I think that’s just how I am.”
El-Sayed stated this quote by Blaise Pascal: “Nothing is as approved as mediocrity, the majority has established it and it fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way.”
He said if people want to be average, they should do what everyone else is doing.
“In my mind, if you have goals and you have ideals that you seek to propagate in the world, generally you can’t just go with the flow on anything,” he said. “And so to me, alhamdulillah [praise be to God], I’ve been very directed about the things that I find important and the endeavors to which I’ll give my time.”
But El-Sayed said he doesn’t know that his ambition was always well-targeted in the past. Not always a great student in middle school and high school, he said he thinks it wasn’t until college that he was able to point his ambition toward worthwhile goals.
He said his father, who moved to Michigan from Egypt in 1979, always expected the most from him and encouraged him to do better.
“I never really believed it until I got to college and saw that I could do a lot better and be really good at this,” he said.
El-Sayed also realized something else from college. He described it as a major turning point in his life.
“When I started college, I was not particularly religious and I didn’t want anything to do with the Muslim community,” he said.
But then in the winter of 2004 during his freshman year, El-Sayed said, something clicked.
“All of a sudden I had a really strong re-ignition of my understanding of my relationship with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala [God the glorious and exalted] and my relationship with people,” he said.
He said the culmination of emptiness from not having a relationship with his creator was eye-opening.
“The people that I was hanging out with and the things that I found interesting, at the end of the day, held no real significance to me or to anyone else,” he said. “And that was troubling in a way.”
El-Sayed said when he realized the importance of a relationship with God, he also realized the value of strong relationships with people who saw that importance.
“And since then, in a small way, I do try to maintain that and to be an active presence,” he said. “I definitely see that maintaining an active voice within the Muslim community among all Muslims is of fundamental importance.”
El-Sayed said one of his favorite activities was working with the Michigan Muslim Youth Council, where he said he enjoyed the opportunity to work with youth in various formative times of their lives.
Perhaps El-Sayed appreciated those formative times because he had experienced his own.
“I took a really formative trip to Egypt between my freshman and sophomore year in college,” he said. “And, I think on purpose, my dad kind of closed the reins on the amount of money that I could use while I was there.”
Living on just 10 to 15 pounds a day, with a half liter bottle of water priced at about 2 pounds, El-Sayed said he became more aware of his privileges in America and his opportunity to address issues of social justice.
“I’ll leave Egypt and go back to my upper middle class American life and many other people won’t. So insofar as education is an opportunity to address that issue for some people, then I better take this thing seriously,” he said.
El-Sayed also emphasized the opportunities that education provides for Muslims in America.
“I think one of the opportunities that we have as Muslims in the U.S. is to pursue education to a degree that is unencumbered and uncompromised in whatever we want to do. I think we really disregard a huge ni’mah [blessing or loan] of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala [God the glorious and exalted] if we don’t take advantage of that to its fullest,” he said.
Although education is important to him, El-Sayed said he tries not to be a bookworm. He served as vice president of the U-M Muslim Students’ Association and president of the Muslim Medical Students’ Association. He was also chosen to be the student speaker at the 2007 U-M commencement.
El-Sayed said he also loves lacrosse, a game that he has been playing for almost 15 years. He described it as one of his passions and was even starting defenseman on U-M’s lacrosse team.
He said his other passions include politics and social science, medicine and traveling. He said he also loves epidemiology.
“It’s kind of my favorite thing to do. I just find it an incredible way to rather objectively categorize disparities and inequalities in existence in a very poignant and precise way,” he said.
El-Sayed categorized three things that he thinks are important for achieving goals: purifying intentions, seeking to rectify one’s relationship with God and prioritizing what’s important, such as family.
“And from there, work hard … Nothing worth accomplishing is easy,” he said. “Also, don’t ever let success get to your head.”
In regards to his biggest achievements, El-Sayed said he doesn’t know that he’s achieved anything yet.
“To be quite honest, I think to me the biggest achievements are the ones that are interpersonal, when you’ve done something for somebody,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve accomplished this in any way.”
About his future plans, El-Sayed said he still has a lot of education to go.
“Then after that, insha’Allah [God willing], I’m interested in going into a career of academics – ideally mostly research and teaching – and then clinical practice. We’ll see what the future holds.”