Years ago, when Sarah Ali's grade-school class in Hattiesburg was studying Egypt, her mom fed the students traditional Middle Eastern dishes to get them in the mood.
Each course was unlike anything most of the students had ever seen; but, all the same, there was something familiar and reassuring about them.
There was baklava, a nut-filled dessert sweetened with sugar and syrup (pecan pie that flakes?); grape leaves, a mess of tasty greens (collards' cousin?), and kofta, ground meat with red sauce (hooray for meat balls!).
Each was exotic, yet relatable at the same time - which is a pretty good description of the student whose mom prepared them: From her first day in elementary school until her last day in medical school, Sarah Ali always stood out while fitting in.
“Sarah is one of those people who is probably good at everything, who has the potential to excel at whatever she does,” said Dr. Lyssa Weatherly, chief resident in internal medicine at UMMC.
“But she's still so humble and approachable. She is great at relating to every single person she comes in contact with, every ethnic group, every religious group; and I believe part of what helps her relate is her own ethnicity.”
Born and brought up in Hattiesburg, Ali is the only member of her parents' household whose birthplace isn't Egypt. But she speaks Arabic, in an Egyptian dialect, visits Egypt every other year or so, and observes the Muslim faith, as her family does.
“My mom wears a veil, and there aren't many veil-wearing women in Hattiesburg,” said Ali, whose first name is pronounced “SAH rah.” “My parents are proud of our culture and religion, and they taught us to be proud of being different.”
One of three grown children, Ali is not the first physician in her family. Her brother, Dr. Mohammad Ali, is an assistant professor of radiology at UMMC. But Sarah is the Alis' first female physician.
“Literally, it's the only thing I ever wanted to be since I was a kid,” she said. “My dad and my uncle have always encouraged me to pursue a career as a physician. From their perspective as immigrants, they believed that such a prestigious career path would ensure stability and respect; and I would be less likely to suffer from some form of discrimination.”
Her path to medical school began in her hometown, at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she emerged as a leader in the classroom, as well as in the community, earning a place in USM's Founder's Day Hall of Fame.
After completing a Master of Public Health degree at Columbia University, she thought a long time before choosing a medical school. “Coming here was probably the best decision I could have made,” she said. “It was so great to have my family nearby, and I used my brother's office here as a stress-relief room.
“I also realized that when you study medicine in Mississippi, you see the extreme cases; you get to see everything.”
At UMMC, Ali continued to lead. She spent her last year here as president of the Associated Student Body, demonstrating “strong and thoughtful leadership,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, the school's chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs.
“Sarah has excellent communication skills, creativity and a quick wit. It's been a real pleasure to know her.”
It was during Ali's internal medicine rotation that Weatherly got to know her.
“When she was off, patients would ask me where Sarah was,” Weatherly said. “She received what is probably the greatest compliment you can get as a medical student: They called her 'my doctor.'”
Ali will begin practicing, officially, as a doctor while in San Francisco, where she will do her residency at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in internal medicine.
“You get to study all the organ systems in internal medicine,” Ali said, “and I like the continuity of care, the relationships you build with patients.”
Recently engaged, she has considered whether she will eventually move back with her husband and see patients in Mississippi “It's not clear yet,” she said, “but I would love to give back to the state that provided me with so much.”
For her part, Weatherly had hoped Ali would stay. “I was sad when I found out she was going elsewhere, even though I was excited for her,” she said. “But I also know she'll represent us well.
“There are a lot of medical students who are smart, who are good communicators, who have a good leadership style - which can be taught. But one thing I can't teach them is how to care, to be compassionate.
“Sarah she has all those things, and I believe that's what sets her apart.”
Of course, her heritage has set her apart as well.
“It is probably unique for a female minority to take on leadership roles in a predominantly Caucasian Christian community,” she said, “but it shows that you can different and still be involved.
“People have assumed that it must have been very difficult for me growing up, but we've never really had a bad experience. There is a small Muslim community in Hattiesburg.
“And people here have been very curious about my culture.”
Recently, she received a message on social media from a woman who has known about Ali's heritage since grade school. “She still remembered the day my mom cooked for our class,” Ali said. “She said that the way she thinks about Muslims is not because of what she sees on the news, but because of my family.”
Ali smiled, remembering that day, too. “Everyone loved the baklava.”