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Christy Theodore Behnam walks across a bridge while holding a notebook.

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A passion to serve through medicine

The human body has always fascinated Christy Theodore Behnam.

As a child growing up in Syria, the Northeastern Illinois University alumna was curious about how one day a person can feel great and the next day become sick.

That fascination led Christy to studying Biology at Northeastern, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in May 2016. Today, Christy is pursuing her dreams as a first-year medical student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford.

“I am very thrilled to have started medical school,” the 22-year-old said. “I have been waiting for this for a long time. I am beyond excited that this journey has started.”

Christy began that journey in Syria where she was accepted to start her medical education at the University of Aleppo, Faculty of Medicine. However, she found herself unable to pursue that route due to the war in Syria. Fortunately, the immigration visa that her family had filed for more than a decade before came to fruition in 2012 and helped provide an alternative for Christy, her parents and sister.

Once in the United States, the family settled in Dubuque, Iowa, where Christy majored in Biochemistry at Loras College. While there, she took on roles such as serving as a supplemental instructor for Chemistry. “I remember how helpful upperclassmen were in clarifying information and guiding me and other classmates throughout our studies at times of struggles,” she said. “Now that I am able to help other students succeed, it only makes sense to do so.”

Two and half years after arriving in Dubuque, Christy’s parents, civil and mechanical engineers by training, chose to move to Chicago in search of jobs. Christy and her younger sister, Jessica, chose to move too. They took a semester off and worked many part-time jobs to help the family. Christy worked in healthcare-related settings such as an urgent care facility, a pharmacy and a physical therapy institute. Each of these jobs provided her with distinctive experiences and further solidified her passion to pursue a career in medicine.

In June 2015, Christy resumed her studies at Northeastern. “Choosing NEIU was the easiest decision I had to make,” she said. “I knew the day I walked in the University that it was the right fit.”

Christy said her professors had a major impact on her studies at Northeastern. “Anatomy and Physiology was one of my favorite classes,” she said. “I enjoyed learning the ‘why’ behind how things in the human body work. Looking back as a medical student, I’m grateful for how preparatory that course was for my current classes.”

In particular she credits Vicki Byard and Cindy Voisine on her educational journey. Byard, coordinator of the First-Year Writing Program, helped to shape and refine Christy’s English writing skills, and she also wrote her a recommendation letter for medical school. Meanwhile, Voisine, an assistant professor of Biology, nominated Christy for the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (Chicago CHEC) Summer Fellowship program, where she was the lead senior fellow in the summer of 2016.

Being a part of the Chicago CHEC Summer Fellowship experience was “indescribable,” said Christy, who was also a member of the Future Health Professionals Club at Northeastern.

“I enjoyed it very much because it solidified my passion to serve through medicine,” she said. “During that fellowship, I truly dived into the dimensions of health inequities that our society is suffering from. It was then when I realized how the inequities that we face in our daily lives can be the drive for creating the change that we wish to see.”

When she wasn’t in the lab dissecting various specimens, Christy relieved her stress by attending dance and basketball classes.

“I love to dance, but taking dance classes was not feasible until I went to school at Northeastern,” she said. “When I found out it could count towards my required electives, I signed up for Spanish, Jazz and Ballet. I even shared in one of my medical school interviews about my love for dancing and how I use it to de-stress, and the interviewer encouraged me to hold on to my healthy coping habits as it will become helpful in the stressful times in medical school and beyond.”

Christy is keeping her residency options open for now. However, her passion to give back to the community continues. Her efforts to contribute to improving health equity in her community take many forms. She volunteers in monthly blood pressure screenings at a local church through the Changing Hearts program, volunteers at the free Bridge Clinic of Rockford, and mentors high school students through the Leader to Leader program—a collaboration between the University of Illinois at Rockford and a local high school.

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