Health & Wellness Student Spotlight

Medical student overcame great obstacles

Yasseen Amellal (Submitted photo)

Yasseen Amellal hopes to one day help students experiencing similar struggles

Eight years ago, Yasseen Amellal was homeless. Fighting poverty and depression, he was “couch surfing” and finding it hard to remain hopeful about his circumstances. Today, Amellal is a third-year medical student at the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

Amellal faced many adversities growing up. “It was rough,” he said. “We were very poor. We lived in public housing, and I moved around a lot. So there wasn’t any stability.”

Over the years, Amellal lived with different family members including his mom, grandmother and eventually his uncle in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“My mom was in a relationship that was not good. The environment was not good,” said Amellal. “That’s why she thought it would be best for me to go live with one of my uncles.”

But that living environment eventually turned sour for Amellal, too. He saw abuse, drugs and fights throughout the neighborhood.

“I didn’t have a lot of guidance, so I had to figure stuff out for myself. I saw a lot of my friends go down the wrong path, whether that be selling drugs or not getting out of where we were living.”

After graduating from high school, Amellal found himself homeless. He had begun arguing with his uncle more, so he decided to move out of the house. “For a couple of months, I was just crashing at friends’ houses,” said Amellal.

He enrolled at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester where he completed a semester of college while working 50 hours a week at Domino’s. His grades slipped due to his focus on work, and he ended up failing a midterm. The professor told him to give up on college.

Instead of discouraging him, Amellal said the comment fueled him. “I wanted to prove him wrong,” he said. “I was like, thank you for the motivation.”

Even with his grades suffering, he needed the job at Domino’s to afford gas to drive to class.

“I had to work so much just to afford college,” said Amellal. “I had no idea what FAFSA was, and I had no idea what financial aid was. I had nobody to go to and ask and no way to navigate it. None of my family knew anything about it.”

The stress of it all caused him to slip into a depression. “It was very hopeless, he said. “I didn’t know what to do. Dealing with work and school and trying to reconcile with my uncle and things that were going on at home. There was a lot that was going on.”

Amellal told his mother what he was going through, and she suggested he move closer to her in Georgia. By this time, she had gotten out of the abusive relationship and earned a nursing degree. He applied and was accepted to Kennesaw State University, where he majored in biology. And he was able to use financial aid for his schooling. Almost his entire education was covered by scholarships, including HOPE.

At Kennesaw, he earned good grades and did well on the MCAT, but was told by a professor he would be lucky to get accepted to even one medical school because it is so competitive. But for Amellal, there was no other path. He had known he wanted to be a doctor from the age of 5.

“When I used to go to the doctor as a kid, it was very comforting,” said Amellal. “Just what they did, how they brought peace to people and gave them ease and comfort, and knowing the amount of comfort you can give other people. That’s what drew me into it.”

At Kennesaw, Amellal met one of his mentors, Dr. Melanie Griffin, and got involved with the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, a program focused on increasing the amount of historically underrepresented students in STEM fields. “We would have talks from minority physicians and minority scientists to show us we could do this,” said Amellal.

And he did do it.

Amellal was accepted to five medical schools and was debating between the Medical College of Georgia and the University of South Florida. When he learned there was a four-year Medical College of Georgia campus in Athens, Amellal chose the Medical Partnership.

“The first thing that really drew me was the low faculty-to-student ratio. That was huge for me,” said Amellal. “At USF I thought I was going to be a number. Just that extra attention on you here. That’s such a plus.”

Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, professor of medicine at the Medical Partnership, is one of Amellal’s mentors.

“Having been in medical education at many levels for most of my career, there are students that draw you in from the first meeting. Mr. Amellal is such a student,” said Rohr-Kirchgraber. “He is a unique individual who has shown resilience and significant grit in his career journey to medicine. He understands the impact that social determinants can have on a patient’s health, and he has an awareness of the difficulties young people face and how this can impact their education and limit future career prospects.”

Once he graduates from the Medical Partnership in 2025, Amellal plans to pursue ophthalmology. He also knows he wants to move back up north to practice and give back to Worcester—the town he still considers home.

“I want to create a program that helps kids in inner cities who want to go into medicine,” said Amellal. “There are so many kids just like me. There were kids smarter than me, and they just got into the wrong things. Yes, I worked hard, 100 percent. But I was also very, very lucky. A huge part of it was luck. A lot of it is access to resources. They just weren’t able to find the right mentor or the right programs. So many things had to align for me.”

Looking back at his journey gives Amellal satisfaction and confidence. “Any time I have a hurdle in my way, I just think of all I went through. There is nothing life could throw at me that would break my spirit.”