Penn Medical Student’s Work to Heal Others Extends Beyond Health Care

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460April 8, 2014

Leah Seifu, a second-year University of Pennsylvania medical student, says that her Ethiopian heritage and Catholic school education instilled in her a deep cultural awareness and drive to help others through social activism.

The Washington, D.C., native came to Penn in the summer of 2012. As a member of the inaugural class of Perelman Scholars, Seifu received a full scholarship to attend Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

After learning about the awards, Seifu wrote a thank you letter saying, "It has been my dream to take part in a profession centered on an intrinsic love for humanity. Being a Perelman Scholar has made my dream a reality.”

During her first year, Seifu took on the responsibilities of community service co-chair of Penn's chapter of the Student National Medical Association, the oldest and largest national organization of medical students of color in the United States.

She recalls her experience with SNMA as “a unique opportunity to get involved.”

One thing she did was co-lead a hypertension clinic at a West Philadelphia barbershop.

“We would go in about twice a month, every other Saturday and take blood pressures. The hypertension screening didn’t take long,” she says, “The shop owner would jump in and would get his blood pressure done each time to encourage others to learn their numbers.”

At the same time, Seifu was serving as the founding funding director of the Penn Human Rights Clinic, a collaboration between Physicians for Human Rights and medical students. PHRC began operations in 2012 and is dedicated to providing psychiatric and physical evaluations to survivors of persecution who are seeking asylum in the U.S.

The clinic is run by medical students and helps people who are fleeing torture, trafficking and other forms of persecution. The students document individual's physical and psychological scars and submit medical-legal affidavits to court. Their work makes a difference in whether people are granted asylum or other relief from deportation.

The exhaustive process takes months. Seifu has done only one evaluation. The case she worked on is still underway. Seifu finds it “a pretty amazing experience.”  The best part, she says is seeing how pivotal a medical student can be in helping people seeking to stay in the U.S.

Seifu is still a PHRC member and volunteer but no longer serves on the board. She is also an active member in Penn’s Medical Student Government and is excited to be in the midst of her clinical rotations this year. While she expects to graduate in 2016, she is strongly considering taking an additional year to get a master’s in public health.

She’s also interested in pediatrics, having spent a summer in Santiago, Chile, taking part in clinical and public-health projects, including one that supported low-income children with cancer. Seifu also spent a summer in Washington working for the Children's Defense Fund on projects related to child health and nutrition.

Whatever specialty she takes up in her medical career, Seifu plans to continue to combine her interests in pediatric medicine, public health and social advocacy.

“When I was looking at medical schools, the ability to participate in all these things was important to me,” she says.