Take Full Advantage of Opportunities When They Come

Coming to America

I was born in Sudan and left when I was 7. My dad worked as a translator for the Health Department in Saudi Arabia for 27+ years. We were mostly living in Sudan when he was living in Saudi Arabia, but when I was 7, we moved to Saudi Arabia and stayed there for two years. Since we were planning to come to the US, we didn’t get enrolled in school; we were young, and it didn’t phase us so much. We stayed home and had a fun time. Now looking back, I think I definitely should have gone to school for those two years. In Saudi Arabia, if you’re not a citizen, you needed to enroll in a private school. 

I came to the United States when I was 9. I felt like every time we wanted to come to the US, there was a delay, but it was a good experience – we got to live in a different country and meet new people.

When we came to the US, I personally did not speak a word or a letter of English and I was in the third-grade. Our first school was a little bit challenging because they didn’t have the support in place to have English as a Second Language (ESL).

I came to another elementary school and they provided a lot of resources and pull-out sessions. I went to a private Catholic middle-school located in Washington, D.C. for two years. I’m not Catholic, but at the same time, it was a very welcoming Catholic school. I was practicing Islam and fasting during Ramadan, and they had Lent — they also fasted. We had that exchange of information and knowledge which was beautiful — the principal really took me on and embraced me and explained to students that this is a perfect opportunity to have these different religions come together and to be able to study together. We can learn from you as much as you can learn from us.

I went to Cesar Chavez Public Charter school and was able to engage in fellowships and learn critical information like how to write a thesis, how to defend it, and where you get your resources, who to talk to, and citations.

For my defense, one of my teachers had a lawyer from the Supreme Court attend. Minutes before presenting, my teacher said, “Don’t worry, don’t be nervous. It’s just one of my friends, we went to school together.” I asked him if he could tell me a little more about him, and he said, “He’s a Supreme Court lawyer.” As a high school student, I felt nervous, but presented and did a good job.

A Penn State Lion

I graduated third in my high school and then I studied Biobehavioral Health Penn State. I engaged a lot in the community, wrote for the newspaper, and became a Lion Ambassador. The leadership built my character and creativity. When you’re in college, you have this idea, but then you have a massive amount of students who want to engage in your ideas, develop them, see them from start to finish. I loved that energy in college because it gives you the ability to think that anything is possible, and especially at Penn State — you could design something, bring people together and make it happen.

After I graduated from Penn State, I was unsure where I wanted to go and thought about medical school. I started doing Organic Chemistry research, worked with a professor, and took an opportunity to present at a national conference and I was so nervous. There were many different components; I had to find funding and that’s very challenging since I graduated already from undergrad. A lot of programs kind of kick you out because you have a degree already. I decided to search on my own and had to design and write a budget proposal and an abstract. I learned as I went.

We live in a world where sometimes it’s said that you have to learn everything before you get started, but my advice to young professionals or students is that you don’t have to know all the pieces before you get started. 

I started applying to organizations and talking to people. There’s a lot of skills that college doesn’t necessarily teach you — you have to learn them on your own, like grant writing and budget proposals. I got a private scholarship because I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I went to Houston, Texas for the NIS/BKX National Conference, and got first-place for my organic chemistry research.

I was a little bit surprised because I spent a lot of that time looking for funding, so I didn’t spend that much time practicing on my presentation. I started practicing for the entire night, rehearsing any types of questions I may get asked. I think that’s really good for students — not only do you need to know your work but also, think about additional questions they may ask you about your research. Try to get with a group of friends and ask them, “Hey, can you guys look at my work? Can I present in front of you?” and presenting in front of the mirror is very good practice.

I started seeing people in medical and law school and felt like I had a few more classes to take to qualify. I had to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). I sort of took a ‘shortcut’ and applied for a Masters and got in, and said, “I’m not going to continue taking prerequisites to get into medical school.” Sometimes, we fall into the urgency of thinking, “Oh, look what other people are doing! They already have their life together; I need to do something.”

A career in Public Health during turbulent times

I went to Marshall University in West Virginia to study Public Health, and it was the perfect place to study Public Health because a lot of the time, if you are studying health, you don’t want to go to a ‘perfect’ environment. You want to go to an environment where your skills and potential can be used, where you can actually make an impact.

West Virginia ranked #1 in all of the negative health outcomes: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. While I was there, I worked for the Department of Health and Human Resources and it was a really great learning opportunity. I was just an intern but I was able to go on outbreak investigations and publish a report. I worked specifically with antibiotic resistance, and with antibiotic resistance in West Virginia, they haven’t captured the data on that yet. At the time when I wrote it, my report was the first to deal with antibiotic resistance (CRE). I collected and analyzed the data, went to hospitals and other local epidemiology centers, and they have a team called Threat Preparedness. It was amazing because it allowed me to see that I could work on something and it could be useful and policies can be made as a result. One of the policies we were thinking about changing is with including pre-screening questions, asking patients, when they are in the triage, if they have CRE, because if you do, you can control it early-on so it doesn’t spread throughout the facility.

We were also talking with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about having a coordinated system so the hospitals could talk to long-term care facilities and nursing homes and increase data-sharing. If a patient is moving from one facility to the next, that information has transferred with them as well. I was there during the Zika virus and Ebola time period; I got a lot of training on putting on personal protective gear and taking it off. I also did some research and volunteered with the Sudanese American Medical Association. I’m considering getting involved in some public health projects that they are working on, especially with midwife health and education surrounding it. 

After that, I started working for a pharmaceutical company and it was beneficial because it allowed me to see how drugs are developed from clinical to pre-clinical, marketing, and post-marketing. That company was also working with Clinical Data Interchange Standards Consortium (CDISC).

I’m currently a Library and Media Specialist at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). I teach students how to use the online catalogue, to search for items. The library is always a warm, welcoming place. I also work with Project Zero which is geared in the direction of bringing global studies into the curriculum. I collaborated with NASA and they were able to give a live demonstration to our students from space, and there was a Q&A. That was a lot of fun! We brought the entire school into the library and had a huge projection screen. 

DCPS under COVID-19 limitations

With the COVID-19 situation, we are currently doing distance learning using platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for live lessons. I also created an online website and they can access resources, lesson plans, and even access astronauts who can read to them from space! With the younger kids, I teach them character education, about values and how to interact with each other. They worked together to build a structure and I showed them how hard it was to build it, but if you take one piece away, the whole structure falls down. It’s very hard to build but it’s easy to destroy.

In my personal time, I’m working with professors, and we’re almost publishing an article about COVID-19, looking at attitudes, behaviors, habits and practices of nursing students, as they relate to COVID-19.

Take advantage of opportunities

Life doesn’t happen how we planned it, but you definitely make the best out of it. For example, I was substituting at the school when I got offered the library position with a good salary. I had other offers but they didn’t offer enough salary. This is my fourth degree, so finance was really important, as having to pay for four degrees is very taxing. I ended up taking the opportunity and paid off all my student loans within two years.

Sometimes you have to be strategic and say, “I’m going to take this opportunity. It may not be the best opportunity but I’m just going to take it for a short time, do the best I can.” The library was outside of my area of expertise; even if you take on opportunities that aren’t necessarily in the same direction you intended to go into, the benefit is seeing the intersection of every opportunity that comes into your life. By getting a second Masters in Library Science, it was beneficial to me because it gave me the opportunity to dive deeper into research.

There’s a lot of things I wasn’t aware of, such as how you could write formulas into the search engines, and it improved my searching ability for databases. It was helpful, and now that I’m working on my doctorate, I feel like I’m knowledgeable about data retrieval. Ironically, in the first semester of the first year of my doctorate program, we had a librarian come to us and give us a presentation on how to use the databases, resources for references, and how to organize and compile them. I could have completely been the one giving that presentation! It shows you the intersection.

When opportunities do come, take full advantage of each one. With Harvard University’s Project Zero, at that time, I was working on my second Masters, I had a full-time job, and I was trying to do my second Masters in a year.

Sometimes, when opportunities come, you say yes to them and you work out the details later. You also have to have good organizational skills to balance everything and it’s not as stressful.

Right now, I can’t control the fact that COVID-19 happened, and it has drastically impacted my life, but I say, “What is a good opportunity I could engage in?” Instead I could dwell on the negative and say, “Well, COVID-19 is bad,” or I could engage in some research or publish some work related to COVID-19 and produce positive outcomes. Even when there’s a negative situation, there’s always something positive — work hard in the meantime, connect and network with people. Sometimes you’re working with people and they can introduce you to someone else and you’re getting closer and closer to what you truly want to do. 

When to say Yes or No to an opportunity

I’ve said no if things didn’t really match up. For the most part, I say yes all the time, but it’s good to organize yourself.

For my second Masters, I knew my schedule was going to be packed. I planned ahead and read all of my textbooks before the semester started and then I asked the professors for the syllabus, either for the semester that’s coming up or from the previous semester. If there is a website where you can retrieve the syllabi, that’s helpful for planning. I got to see what projects there were, topics that were going to be covered. When you read the textbook before the semester starts, the semester is pretty much going to be a breeze. You’re going to sit back and it’s not going to be the first time you are hearing this information. You could even highlight questions that you have so you are already prepared for projects, and also for what you don’t know yet, or if there’s an area of challenge you could ask the professor for. What I notice about the books I have read so far, they break things down and the order of learning materials makes it very clear for the purposes of planning and prioritizing. 

Khulud Khudur

Khulud Khudur is a first-year Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) student concentrating in lung cancer at Morgan State University, and a Supervisor for Covid Response at the Baltimore City County Health Department. She is a former Librarian and Media Specialist at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and a former Research Assistant at PharmaStat LLC. In her spare time, she volunteers at the Sudanese American Medical Association, a non-profit, non-political, educational and humanitarian organization whose members are medical professionals of Sudanese descent. Khulud’s strengths are in the areas of statistical and epidemiological methods, disease surveillance, infectious disease control and global health.

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