People Who Soar

Jennifer L. Bloom
University of South Carolina
Amanda E. Propst Cuevas
Grand Valley State University

Volume: 11
Article first published online: December 9, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161539

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, inspiration, overcoming challenges
“People who soar are those who refuse to sit back, sigh, and wish things would change. They neither complain of their lot nor passively dream of some distant ship coming in. Rather, they visualize in their minds that they are not quitters; they will not allow life's circumstances to push them down and hold them under.” ~ Charles R. Swindoll

During these challenging economic times, it is easy to complain about declining resources. Whenever we find that either one of us is spending more time whining about a problem than actually doing something to resolve the situation, we quickly remind each other of our former students, twins Shamsideen (Sham) and Hussein Musa, and ask “WWTD” or “What Would the Twins Do?” What we learned best from the twins was that when faced with insurmountable odds, we can find a way to make things happen anyway. The twins faced overwhelming obstacles literally from the day they were born and have successfully overcome every challenge to date that stood between them and their dreams.

Their story began on May 4, 1983, when two months before her due date and unaware that she was carrying twins, their mother was rushed to the hospital where she delivered fraternal twin boys weighing 2 pounds 15 ounces and 3 pounds 4 ounces. They were in intensive care for six weeks, and Hussein's life in particular was in great danger. However, they were fighters from the beginning and successfully met their first challenge.

Their next test involved surviving while growing up in inner-city Chicago. Sham and Hussein were raised by protective parents who had emigrated from Nigeria to the United States. The boys were only occasionally allowed to play outside for fear they would be hurt or succumb to the dangers of their poor South Side neighborhood in Chicago. As they grew older, they had the good fortune to meet Dr. Jack Kurty, the director of High Jump, a special program at the Latin School of Chicago, which places underprivileged minority students into private high schools. Dr. Kurty took the twins under his wing and helped them attend Lake Forest Academy, where they flourished academically. In fact, Hussein recalls that it was Lake Forest Academy that piqued his interest in science. He said, “In my freshman biology class, we had to dissect a fetal pig. I loved it and thought, 'Yes! This is what I'm talking about!'” From that point on, he really could not see himself doing anything else but science.

We first met the twins when we worked as student affairs deans at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to our duties with the medical school, we had the privilege of working with amazingly smart and talented aspiring medical and M.D./Ph.D. students. We taught a course for first-year students, individually advised minority pre-med students, and spoke to countless undergraduate student organizations. Having prospered at Lake Forest Academy, the twins entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as pre-med majors in the molecular and cellular biology program. Their adjustment to life in Champaign-Urbana was not always smooth, but they were determined to succeed. Sham enrolled as a first-year student in the Physiology 199 course, “Minority Issues in Medical Education,” taught by this article's lead author. Soon thereafter, Sham introduced Hussein to both authors of this article, and then the boys began frequently visiting the authors' offices.

The summer after their first year, they both participated in the Minority Medical Education Program at Yale University. One of their professors in the program, Dr. Wolinski, taught them to “learn as much as you possibly can. You may fail exams and in life you may face many obstacles, but no one can take away your knowledge.” They absolutely loved the program at Yale and came back to Illinois with a renewed enthusiasm for medicine and an unwavering determination to obtain undergraduate research positions. That fall they unsuccessfully applied for research position after research position at the University of Illinois. They were discouraged but not willing to give up, and we suggested that they take resumes in hand and literally go door-to-door in laboratory buildings to find research positions. After spending many days wandering hallways inquiring about research opportunities and receiving polite rejection after polite rejection, they hit the jackpot when they knocked on the door of Dr. A. Lane Rayburn in the Department of Crop Sciences. Dr. Rayburn was so impressed by their initiative, determination, and passion that he invited them to join his lab. Immediately, they became hooked on research and continued to conduct research throughout their undergraduate careers.

Another obstacle they faced during their undergraduate careers was one that many students face, which is how to effectively balance academics and extra-curricular leadership activities. They were popular leaders in their lab, fraternity, and the Black Student Union; however, their grades slowly started to drop from mostly A's to mainly B's. When confronted about their academic performance, Sham reflects, “I couldn't believe that Jenny asked me, 'Why did you get a B when you can get an A?' Wasn't my GPA good enough?! What I appreciated most about Jenny was that she held us to a higher standard even when we were doing well, because she knew exactly what we were capable of.” The challenge presented to the twins was to earn all A's the next semester or to at least be able to say they gave their absolute best efforts in all of their classes. If they were successful, they would earn a dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Determined to meet this challenge, they wrote and signed a pact that in part vowed to “never give up and to instill this same determination into my brother and those closest to me, for I am my brother's keeper.” They began meeting weekly with Amanda to prioritize their schedules and keep her apprised of their progress. Even though neither one of them earned straight A's the next semester, they both improved their performance dramatically, did the best that they could, and earned that special dinner celebration.

Their next challenge arose when they sought admission into M.D./Ph.D. programs. Despite their strong GPAs and research experience, the twins had difficulty landing interviews with prestigious Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP). Undaunted, they again showed great resilience and took it upon themselves to find a way into an MSTP. While attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) that fall, they sought out a representative from the MSTP program at the University of Chicago. Unbeknownst to them, their letters of rejection from Chicago's MSTP were literally in the mail. However, the institutional representative was so impressed by the twins that he called the admissions office and announced that despite the letters in the mail, the twins indeed would have the opportunity to interview for admission. Both of them were later admitted into the University of Chicago's program.

Reflecting on their decisions to pursue this career path, Sham expressed confidently, “I won't regret doing the M.D./Ph.D., but I might regret not taking advantage of the opportunity.” Sham is working on his dissertation research to uncover the anti-inflammatory activity of vitamin D in prostate cancer. He is under the mentorship of Dr. Rick Kittles from the University of Chicago and currently working with Dr. Stefan Ambs at the National Cancer Institute. Hussein completed two years of graduate training before deciding to instead focus his energies on completing his remaining medical training and pursuing a career in clinical medicine.

We have total confidence that Sham and Hussein will have successful careers in medicine and/or medical research. Their hard work, dedication to excellence, and persistence have all been crucial to their success to date and will ensure that they have bright futures ahead of them. They encourage faculty, advisers, and student affairs professionals alike to believe in their students. Hussein noted, “It is your unwavering belief in students that allows them to succeed and reach their goals. Even when we doubt ourselves, when you believe in us, we have no other choice but to have the confidence to believe in ourselves.”

Overcoming seemingly impossible odds throughout their lives, Sham and Hussein Musa remind us all that any time spent whining about our problems is time that would be better spent creatively solving those problems. We feel very fortunate to have Sham and Hussein as inspirations in our lives and look forward to cheering them on as they continue to accomplish great things. They remind us all of the truth inherent in Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

About the Author(s)

Jennifer L. Bloom, Ed.D., is a clinical associate professor and director of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. She can be reached at

Amanda E. Propst Cuevas, M.A., is a senior academic adviser for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Academic Advising Center at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. She can be reached at