Learn English with Leen Al Kassab. In her moving Class Day speech, Leen AI Kassab, a Harvard Medical School graduate, reflects on her journey as an Arab Muslim woman and physician. She discusses the power of identity, the challenges of stereotypes, and the significance of being an ambassador for one’s culture and profession. Listen to her story of empowerment, family pride, and her vision of medicine as a field of empathy and advocacy.
Good afternoon, everybody. Marhaba. It is a pleasure to be here and share some reflections with you today. Today is a special day for many reasons, but it is extra special for me, as some of you may know, because my father, who is a Syrian passport holder, could not make it to my 2018 college graduation or my white coat ceremony. But thankfully, he is here today. He is here alongside my incredible mother, my brother, the best of lifelong friends and classmates, and I’m so grateful.
It is an honor to be a part of this day with all the families and parents here, physically, virtually, and in spirit. Collectively celebrating our, and truly your, incredible milestone and significant achievement, a culmination of over 10, even 25 years of your guidance, support, patience, and encouragement. We thank you.
During my time at HMS, I took a research year to work on an immigrant woman’s health project, and through many focus group discussions, the concept of identity, the strength and empowerment it brings, was so palpable. I reflected on what cultural and religious identity meant to me, how it empowers me, and intersects with my identity as, dare I say now, a physician. After nine years in the US and on Harvard’s campus, every time I see someone from my home region, the first question I get is, how are you treated there? Do you face any challenges because of your headscarf, or because you’re Arab? Thought provoking questions like this did not only come from those far away.
During TCE, a clerkship director was checking in with me about my experience with patients and faculty, asking me the same question. Later, during my residency interview trail, noting that my personal statement and extracurricular activities were all relevant to my identity as an Arab Muslim woman, an interviewer asked me, what made you feel like you can so openly and unapologetically be yourself? Can be hard to quiet the noise as a busy medical student and reflect on your own identity, but I owed that reflection to myself and to those asking.
The question prompted me to wonder about the weight of wearing my identity. Is it burdensome to me, inconvenient to others? The answer was never simple or concrete. It was always so undeniably complex, a composite of experiences, memories, stories, and internalized perspectives, never simple, much like identities. I thought back to an experience I had at the Harvard Square homeless shelter, where I was doing intake with a guest who was getting an overnight bed, an experience much similar to doing a new admission for a patient. Next morning, he shared that someone on his Facebook feed had made an Islamophobic post, but this time he took it upon himself to comment, saying, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve never met a Muslim. I met one last night, and she treated me with more kindness than anyone.
I would have never thought that how I interacted with this guest after a long night of volunteering would be ingrained in his mind as what Muslims are like. I’m grateful that I was able to present a real world manifestation of the values my identity is founded upon and deconstruct misinformed assumptions about it. In recalling stories like this one, I recognize that while no one ecosystem is perfect, Harvard is a special place that respects and promotes celebrating individual identities in all its kinds, and it was a privilege to be here and to be a part of its community.
Throughout the years… Throughout the years away from home and from a decade-long civil war, I have grown to recognize that with privilege comes power, and with power comes responsibility. And by virtue of us being here, we have accepted that responsibility. When I first got into Harvard, my uncle called me Sefiritna, which translates to ambassador. He called me this to refer to the identity I was to exemplify and represent in this new place. There was so much pride, excitement, and pressure in just one word.
I am not unique in holding an identity that shapes my worldview and values. Each one of us has their own beautifully crafted, ever-evolving identity. But perhaps one remarkable identity we now share and visibly wear together is that of medicine. In just two weeks, we will all be wearing our big, bright badges that reads MD or doctor or physician. We will all be wearing our not short-length white coats. We’ll be carrying our stethoscopes, probably not in surgery, and we’ll probably be wearing our scrubs. I think now is a good time to reflect on the responsibility, power, and privilege that comes with carrying the weight of here on wearing your identity as a physician.
It is important to always think about how, as physicians, our individual 15-minute interactions with one patient may have ripple effects on their future interactions or lag their off with healthcare systems and professionals for themselves and their families and for consequential decisions they make with regard to their well-being. We may have rough days, we may experience burnout, we may not be perfect, and the identity of a profession does not fall on one individual. But as we celebrate the privilege of living out our dream of becoming doctors, let us remember to maintain the things we learned in POM. Remember to nurture your empathy, your compassion, your willingness to be an educator, to check your assumptions and stigma, to advocate for your patients, and to go the extra mile.
Our interactions and care, no matter how fleeting, are representative, ingrained, and consequential to those we’ve dedicated the last several years to and care most about, our patients. The beauty of the duality in our profession is that we are often both the scientist and the advocate, the empathetic caretaker and the tough news bearer, the advisor and the listener, the entrusted teacher and the lifelong student. We are also the physician and the ambassador. Graduating today from Harvard Medical School, yes, take that in, we really did it, we are each a safir or safira, ambassadors of both the identity we openly and unapologetically carry as individuals and now our shared identity as physicians. If the white coat had an identity, then our identity is humanity wherever we may be. May we all proudly wear our white coats and take on our responsibility as ambassadors of this profession. Thank you.