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This is what it’s really like to apply to med school as a hijabi

I tried to hide my shock. But what else could I do in that situation?

I sat in my chair, nervously sipping on my hot chocolate. As I took another sip, I spilled some hot chocolate onto my beige hijab, that I had neatly tied with a bow-tie in the front.

“Oh snap! Of course, I would spill hot chocolate on myself right before my interview!” I thought as I frantically grabbed some napkins and tried to wipe off as much of the hot chocolate as I could. Luckily, the hot chocolate was similar enough in color to my hijab that it was not too noticeable. I tucked the slightly stained part of my hijab into my suit so that it couldn’t be seen at all.

I was early for my first medical school interview. After going through an arduous application process and not hearing any positive news from schools, I had completely lost hope that anything would work out this application cycle. When I saw the email interview invitation from a medical school in New York, I had felt a mixed feeling of elation and disbelief.

But most of all, it gave me hope that I still had a chance. I had to do well in this interview.

Now, here I was. I had flown across the country for this chance. I had arrived early, and the receptionist had kindly seated me in an empty conference room where the other interviewees and faculty would later arrive.

As I sat in the room by myself, a female faculty member entered the room and sat next to me. She greeted me and explained which department she was in and which class she taught.

As we made small talk, at one point she bluntly pointed to my hijab and asked, “You know, for the lab, you will have to take that thing off as students have to practice physical examinations on each other. Are you okay with that?”

I was taken aback. I did not know how to respond. All I could think was that this was my one chance at medical school and I knew that they would observe my every move. I politely smiled and nodded “Yes,” as I tried to hide my shock.

But what else could I do in that situation?

I later reflected on that moment. Was she justified in making that comment? It was a private institution and they had the right to make their own rules. I could also understand the importance of students learning by practicing on each other. But could the school not be accommodating to my religious beliefs by only making me take off my hijab in front of other female students?

More than that, what I realized looking back at that situation was the disparity in power.

How, because I was so desperate to get into medical school, I went along with whatever was said. I also thought about how when I started wearing hijab, I had never thought about how it could affect me in the real world in terms of how I would be perceived in interviews or the workplace. I remember discussing it with a fellow hijabi-friend from college, talking about whether by wearing hijab there was yet another “glass-ceiling” above us in terms of what we could achieve. A “glass ceiling” on top of being a woman, especially one of color, that was never talked about.

Yet when I feel that way, I remind that whatever is best for me will work out. That even if I do not get into a medical school or anything else in the future because of my hijab, that that school, job, or whatever else I strived for was not best for me and that I would not have been happy there.

I did not get into that medical school.

While I was devastated at first, I eventually came to peace with that. Because I know looking back that I probably would not have been happy at that school since I did not feel comfortable there. I realized this even more so in interviews at other medical schools, where I felt like the faculty and staff seemed very accommodating and willing to meet my unique needs.

Regardless of what happens, I know that whichever school I end up attending, things will work out. I hope.