Most little kids dream of being astronauts, firemen or professional athletes when they grow up. Not me. When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older, I proudly said I wanted to be a general surgeon, just like my dad.

It wasn’t until I was five that I realized what surgeons actually do. I decided I would be a pediatrician instead. It wasn’t until I was older that I started seriously thinking about other careers, much to the dismay of my mom.Shabeeb 2

The education system is very different in Syria, where both of my parents were born and raised, than it is in the states. Students decide in 9th grade between humanities or science, and they only take classes related to their chosen track. At the end of each year, they undergo a series of rigorous exams. If they don’t pass, they must either repeat the year or drop out. Their careers are determined by how high they score senior year. There is no encouragement to try a variety of classes. It’s extremely stressful, to say the least.

Mama had the scores to pursue medicine but chose to study engineering instead. By the time she and my father were married, he was already working as a doctor in Chicago, and she decided not to work as an engineer here. Her sisters now work as doctors or pharmacists, and Mama often wonders how things would be if she had chosen medicine instead. She has always encouraged my older sister Dana and me to take the path that she didn’t.

Dana and I would discuss school a lot with my parents when we were growing up. The four of us would sit at the table after dinner and just talk, long after my little brother and sister had run off to watch TV. As we grew older, the conversations would inevitably turn to our future careers, dirty dishes forgotten.

My parents had a different perspective on education than Dana and I did because of how and where they were raised. During the ‘70s, one of the only ways that people could leave Syria was by being a doctor and finishing their postgraduate education in a different country. While Mama’s top priority was obviously for us to be happy, she wanted us to be happy doctors.

By the time we reached high school, Dana and I weren’t sure whether medicine was really a good fit for either of us, but sometimes it felt like it was the only career option my mom would consider. Our arguments of “but Mama, we don’t like science! And blood is scary!” were lost on her.

“I didn’t want to be a doctor because I thought I didn’t like science,” she would say. “But being a doctor is about a lot more than that. Think of how many lives your dad has saved.”

She pushed us to shadow doctors, and it was only after doing so that I really fell in love with the field. Without her constant encouragement, I don’t know if I would have actually stuck with medicine.

What Dana and I both chose to study in college reflects the combination of our Syrian and American cultures. I’m majoring in journalism but plan to apply to medical school after graduation. Dana, on the other hand, thought outside the box a little. She’s a political science major, but she’s also pre-dental. When she took the DAT (Dental Admission Test), Mama said she might as well take the MCAT.

“Just for fun.”