Health Studies, biology double major to deliver College’s commencement address

Bismah Siddiqui aims to make an impact on public health, after inspiring her fellow grads

As Health Studies major Bismah Siddiqui was about to complete her last final exam, she took a minute to pull out her cell phone and record a video to send to friends of her officially closing her laptop on her undergraduate college career.

“It just felt symbolic to record that moment,” said Siddiqui, who is also a Biology double-major. “Of course, it’s a bitter-sweet feeling to be done with college, but I’m really excited to graduate. I’m just so proud of being able to reach this milestone, I celebrated every final exam. There’s a lot of excitement on my part.”

Siddiqui may have finished her last exam, but her responsibilities at URI are not yet complete. She has one final task ahead of her — giving her fellow College of Health Sciences graduates a rousing sendoff as student commencement speaker at the College’s graduation ceremonies May 22.

“It was such an honor and such a surprise. I was not expecting that at all,” Siddiqui said. “It’s a great honor to be commencement speaker, and I’m glad that I can use my voice to kind of resonate with other students. Obviously, this past year and a half has been unexpected and difficult in unique ways for all of us. In my position, I feel like since I started my college career with a rocky start and because I had to deal with that grief and transition early on, I feel that people going through it now might be able to resonate with what I have to say.”

Indeed, Siddiqui did have a rocky start to her college career. Originally enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, her family suffered a tragic, personal loss during her freshman year when her father, Zubair Siddiqui, suddenly passed away. Faced with the need to help her mom, Amrah Siddiqui, run the family business and help care for her two younger siblings, Siddiqui moved back to her hometown of Warwick and transferred to URI. It turned out to be the best move for all involved.

“Coming to URI was the best decision for me. The amount of support and community I got here was truly amazing,” Siddiqui said. “There were so many people who helped make the transition easier. The stages of grief I was going through, being at URI really gave me the best shot at completing my degree. To be honest, there were points over the last four years when I didn’t think I would finish my degree on time. Not only was I able to do that, but being at URI gave me this new scope of being interested in public health.”

While going to school, Siddiqui worked as a medical scribe at Roger Williams Medical Center and Fatima Hospital, where she was exposed to many underserved communities seen at the hospitals. The experience gave her a new perspective on health care as she prepares for a future in medical school or as a physician’s assistant.

“There were a lot of uninsured people, a lot of minorities, a lot of people who speak English as a second language,” Siddiqui said. “I was able to see some problems in the health care system — people who lacked primary care providers, people who didn’t have access to health care, people who didn’t know how to take care of their health; they had never been given proper education on how to treat or prevent illnesses. Working in the hospital environment really inspired me to want to take a more holistic approach to medicine. My hope is to one day be a medical provider myself, and I think you can’t be a successful medical provider without seeing things from all sides, including public health.”

She has already contributed to public understanding of health issues, having been one of the few students in Assistant Professor Steven Cohen’s Fundamentals of Epidemiology class to present her end-of-course project on an artificial pancreas to improve type 1 diabetes outcomes in children.

“I had the pleasure of having Bismah in my PHP 405 class, Fundamentals of Epidemiology, in Fall 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cohen said. “Throughout the course, she constantly showed her dedication to learning, even in these difficult times, through participating actively in online discussion forums, asking questions, and going above and beyond her assignments in this challenging and quantitative course.”

Siddiqui’s desire to help others, especially those facing disadvantages, applied to her work on campus as well. She has served as vice president and treasurer of the Muslim Students’ Association, helping organize fundraisers for the homeless community, and to support Palestinian hospitals.

“We have lots of events — before COVID times, anyway — but we’re also very involved in community work,” Siddiqui said. “We really strive to create a community for both Muslim and non-Muslim students.”

She plans to further promote that sense of community when she addresses her fellow graduates during commencement ceremonies.

“I really hope I can give a unifying message to the Class of 2021, given all we’ve gone through these past years,” Siddiqui said. “I definitely have some common themes I hope people can relate to. My biggest goal here is to make people feel unified, heard and celebrated for such an amazing accomplishment.”