Breaking Barriers

Dr. Tehmina Ahmad

Since 2004, the Schulich Scholarships have broken down financial barriers, making it possible for students to pursue their academic goals and realize their dreams in medicine, dentistry and research

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

Dr. Tehmina Ahmad’s emotions are still raw when she speaks about the last time she saw Sara*. “She was only 60 lbs and her liver line was visible through her shirt,” Dr. Ahmad said. “She was so sick but her bright personality still shone through.”

Dr. Ahmad met Sara in 2012, when she began volunteering at Safe Space, a support centre for sex workers, allies and women in crisis located in east London. Hearing Sara’s story of the guilt and shame she felt after being treated in hospital following an assault was a defining moment for Dr. Ahmad, inspiring her to apply to medical school.

“Whatever a person’s background, they deserve compassionate care and to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Dr. Ahmad. “Getting to know Sara, I realized this wasn’t always the case, and I knew then that I needed to pursue medicine and make sure that my patients never felt like she did.”

Dr. Ahmad grew up in London. Her parents had settled in the community after fleeing Uganda during Idi Amin’s dictatorship. Although money was tight, education was a priority in the Ahmad family, and Dr. Ahmad and her brother were encouraged to pursue a university degree.

It wasn’t always easy, and there were times during her undergraduate years when Dr. Ahmad worked three jobs.

“I’d work in the lab from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., then head off to the restaurant and work there until 1:00 a.m. Then on weekends, I’d open up the coffee shop and be there all day,” she said.

Despite this, she feared it would be impossible to save enough money to pay for medical school. She wasn’t deterred however, and moved forward with her application.

Receiving a Schulich Scholarship, which provided her with $25,000 per year throughout her four years of undergraduate medical school studies, removed the financial barrier for Dr. Ahmad.

“I’m so grateful for this scholarship, because it made medical education accessible for me,” she said.

In addition to excelling in her medical studies, Dr. Ahmad was very involved with her class locally, proudly serving as Orientation Week Captain. She also held a leadership position on the School’s Student Affairs Committee for three years, helping to revamp peer resources assisting students to find health and wellness guides, and served as a peer confidant for her classmates.

On a provincial level, she served on the executive committee as a Wellness Representative for the Ontario Medical Students Association.

Of all her extracurricular endeavours, however, she’s most proud of working alongside her classmate, Dr. Han Yan, MD’17, on a position paper on transgender health care that was adopted and unanimously supported by the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. The paper highlighted recommendations for medical curricula and the need for more specific materials to better address the needs of this marginalized population.

Dr. Ahmad says that in addition to alleviating the financial burdens of medical school such as tuition, travelling to electives, and preparing for CaRMS, the Scholarship gave her the ability to get involved and expand her horizons. In doing so, the School’s named benefactor was always on her mind.

“I feel as though everything I accomplished during medical school had a little more purpose because I wanted to make Mr. Schulich proud,” she said. “I wanted him to know that his money didn’t go to waste and by investing in me, I will take every opportunity to invest in myself so I can better serve the communities I have come from.”

Dr. Ahmad is just one of more than 125 students in medicine, dentistry and pursuing their graduate training at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry each year who receive a Schulich Scholarship.

“I feel as though everything I accomplished during medical school had a little more purpose because I wanted to make Mr. Schulich proud. I wanted him to know that his money didn’t go to waste and by investing in me, I will take every opportunity to invest in myself so I can better serve the communities I have come from.”
—Dr. Tehmina Ahmad, MD’17

Alex Presello

“This tremendous gift means so much to me and my family. It’s truly a blessing without which it would have been nearly impossible to pursue medicine.”
—Alex Presello

Alex Presello is another recipient. Presello says that the process of applying for the Scholarship stirred up many sensitive memories but represented hope and possibility for him and his family.

“I remember the exact moment when I got the email saying that I was awarded the Scholarship,” he said. “My eyes welled up, I ran upstairs to tell my mom and we stood there in tears hugging. I never imagined receiving support like this.”

The Presello family is no stranger to tragedy.

It was a few days before Christmas, nearly 13 years ago, when Presello’s father was critically injured in a near fatal car accident. While being treated in hospital, after the accident, tragically, his father was also diagnosed with a cancer meningioma over his brainstem. Due to partial paralysis and continuing post-traumatic stress disorder, Presello’s father was not able to return to work.

While the incident allowed the Presello family to grow closer and stronger, it created financial hardships.

Presello had been seriously considering a career in medicine ever since he stepped into the emergency room that tragic day when his father was injured. And he’s taken the steps to make his dream a reality.

Along the way, Presello says his mother has served as role model.

“My mom is my inspiration,” he said. “Despite everything we were going through, she showed determination and strength, and that motivated me to pursue my dream.”

Presello completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Windsor and spent seven years volunteering in the anatomy lab used by medical and nursing students at the University.

He is thrilled to be a member of the Medicine Class of 2020, and feels fortunate to be pursuing his education at the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry – Windsor Campus.

Presello’s first year has been one of adjustments and new opportunities. But he’s found his place and has enjoyed serving on the executive for the Windsor Emergency Medicine Interest Group and getting to know his peers. He’s eager, he says, to continue his studies, take on more leadership roles and begin applying what he’s learning in the classroom to a clinical setting.

Already making an impact, this year Presello’s classmates nominated him for a Peer Learner Award. The award recognizes students who have made significant contributions to improving the quality of academic or extracurricular life and who have provided leadership and contributions to the well-being of other learners at Schulich Medicine.

Presello is embracing his medical school journey with his classmates who he describes as incredible. Always on his mind, however, is the support he received through the Schulich Scholarship.

“This tremendous gift means so much to me and my family. It’s truly a blessing without which it would have been nearly impossible to pursue medicine.”

Although at different stages of their education, Dr. Ahmad and Presello agree that the Schulich Scholarships do so much more than financially support students. Because of the Scholarships, diversity within classes is enriched, the School’s culture is enriched and the collective learning experience is enhanced.

By sharing their stories, Dr. Ahmad and Presello, and their families, hope students who may think medical school is not a possibility will be inspired and will pursue their dreams.

*Name changed to protect identity of individual