Nonetheless, the Sudanese native, whose family immigrated to the East Coast when she was 12 years old, applied to medical school at UCLA mostly as a lofty aspiration.
"I thought it would be fun, not a realistic option in which I would leave my family and travel as far away as possible across the country to attend medical school," she says.
Unique medical opportunities
Once she got into UCLA, weighing the most compelling reasons was important as she made her choice. She was looking for programs that were both strong in primary care and research, so UCLA's opportunities in both areas were a big draw. And of course, LA's weather is so inviting.
"In a place as bilingual as Los Angeles, I felt there are so many opportunities to interact with diverse populations," explains Elnaiem. "When UCLA clinicians break into Spanish, to help communicate with people about their health in their native language so they can understand, it is so admirable to me." This, alone, has pushed her to the prospect of learning Spanish.
Working in the UCLA Mobile Clinic, the student-run health clinic serving the homeless population in West Hollywood, was another unique draw to UCLA. First- and second-year medical students get paired with a social work undergraduate to interview patients under the supervision of UCLA faculty physicians. "Between the two of us [after presenting each case to an attending physician], we help the patient get necessary medications and connect the patient to other helpful community services and resources," says Elnaiem. "It's exciting to apply everything we are learning about in medical school to the real world, as well as learning firsthand and having a real impact on the surrounding community's day-to-day struggles."
It comes down to a gut feeling
But, what clinched her decision to attend medical school at UCLA was meeting Theodore Hall, MD, Interim Associate Dean for Admissions, during her interviews. "Dr. Hall was warm and inviting. UCLA seemed like a place I could definitely grow more and had such a different feeling from the other institutions I have visited. It was so enticing."
Elnaiem said it was a tough decision to move so far out of state. "Home might be nice and comfortable, but ultimately, I wanted to push myself to learn and experience something new," she says.
So, she packed her bags, and with her family's blessing, Heba made her way west without a single contact in Los Angeles.
Reaching out is important when coming from out of state
Elnaiem worked hard to find groups where she belonged. As part of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), a group interested in increasing the number of underrepresented students in medicine, she met with members who encouraged her to make the cross-country leap and helped her work through her anxieties about being so far from home. "Another group I reached out to that helped me feel more at home was the Muslim Student Association at UCLA. I attended Friday prayers — and still do — and get to meet other UCLA students who share my faith," she says.
The UCLA Student Activities Office put her in touch with many upperclassmen who could tutor and help her with the adjustment to medical school, UCLA and living in California as an out-of-state student.
"At UCLA, you are never really alone," states Elnaiem. "There's so much help available to out-of-state students that when you actually reach out to the UCLA Community, you are immediately drawn in."