Religious insensitivity greets alum in med school interview

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Echoing allegations she made in a letter that has circulated via e-mail around campus in recent weeks, Qadira Abdul-Ali ’06 told The Herald Monday that she was asked inappropriate questions about her Muslim faith when interviewing for admission at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, including whether she had been “radicalized.”

A letter of complaint Abdul-Ali sent by e-mail earlier this month to Allen Spiegel, the top dean at Einstein, a Bronx, N.Y., medical school associated with Yeshiva University, was sent to the Brown Muslim Students’ Association e-mail list.

According to Abdul-Ali, her interviewer, Milton Gumbs, a dean at Einstein, interspersed questions and comments about her Muslim faith throughout the interview that revealed “insensitivity and overt ignorance.” In the letter she wrote to Spiegel, she said she had been subjected to “more than thirty-minutes of offensive and biting commentary on Islam.”

“This is the last thing you expect to come up against,” Abdul-Ali said Monday.

The first such comment from Gumbs, Abdul-Ali said, came after a discussion of her time abroad in Cairo, when the interviewer asked her if she had “become radicalized” as a result of the experience.

“I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ ” Abdul-Ali told The Herald.

Feeling that she should maintain her composure, she said, she was prepared to overlook the comment. “I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

But that was not the last of the off-color commentary, Abdul-Ali said, and Gumbs “began throwing out a number of other inapt comments.”

In her letter, Abdul-Ali describes other statements made by Gumbs during the interview.

Of Ramadan, the monthlong holiday during which observant Muslims fast during the day, Abdul-Ali wrote that Gumbs said, “You Muslims are a bunch of hypocrites,” because those observing the fast customarily break their fast at sundown and eat a light meal before sunrise.

According to Abdul-Ali’s letter, Gumbs added, “That’s easy. I do that sometimes myself. I drink coffee in the morning and nothing else until three or four in the afternoon.”

Abdul-Ali also wrote that Gumbs repeatedly asked, “What do you do wrong?” with the intent, she claimed, of finding “discrediting or disparaging” information about her religious practices.

Additionally, Abdul-Ali wrote, when she discussed her brothers with Gumbs, he asked whether the brothers were practicing Muslims or “regular guys.”

In an e-mailed statement, Noreen Kerrigan, assistant dean for admissions at Einstein, wrote that the school was “sorry and surprised” to receive Abdul-Ali’s letter complaining about the interview and that the school had invited Abdul-Ali to return for a second interview at her convenience if she desired.

Kerrigan added that Gumbs was “saddened” by Abdul-Ali’s reaction and that he had “only the highest respect for her personal history and beliefs.” An e-mail sent to Gumbs Sunday was not returned.

Abdul-Ali, despite the disrespect she felt during the interview, said she maintained her composure throughout the interview. She hid her feelings so well that, in an e-mail sent to her in reply to her complaint, Kerrigan wrote that Abdul-Ali had been pleasant after the interview and that nothing had appeared to be wrong.

“He had interspersed the comments,” Abdul-Ali said of Gumbs, explaining that the random and intermittent nature of Gumbs’ commentary did not lead her to lash out in anger, “so it wasn’t just a constant flow of rants and rage.”

Abdul-Ali, who is black, said she had been additionally outraged at her treatment from Gumbs because he serves as the associate dean for the Office of Diversity Enhancement at Einstein, a position he has held, according to Kerrigan, since 1989.

“The irony would not have been lost on even the most obtuse,” Abdul-Ali wrote in her letter to Spiegel.

Kerrigan wrote in her e-mail that Gumbs, who is also black, and the medical director of one of Einstein’s affiliated hospitals, was “a deeply committed and strong advocate for increasing the numbers of minorities in the health professions.”

Indeed, according to Abdul-Ali, she was told that she and other students of color present would interview with Gumbs because he valued being able to interview students of color himself.

Abdul-Ali, who has been living in Washington, D.C., and working as a research assistant in an asthma clinic, said she already has at least one acceptance in hand from the other schools she is applying to. Her plan, she said, is not to make noise about her experience beyond what she has already done.

“I’m just going to let it go,” she said. “I’m at the beginning of my career. I’m sure this is a fight I’m going to be fighting the rest of my life, being a person of color, being a woman, being a Muslim.”

“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be at this point,” she added, saying that it would be a bad strategy to make a name for herself in the medical community based on this experience and thus gain a reputation as a troublemaker.

“I know how medicine works,” she said.

Her plan, she said, is to put her interview with Gumbs behind her and simply work hard so that she can one day have the power to change what is wrong with the medical community.

“I’m 23 years old – I know I’m not going to change the mind of this man,” she said, “no matter how many e-mails and letters of complaint I write.”

“At the end of the day, you do have to choose your battles,” she added.

Noor Najeeb ’09, a member of the Muslim Students’ Association, said Abdul-Ali’s story has been a topic of discussion since she forwarded Abdul-Ali’s letter to the BMSA listserv after reading it in a Facebook note Abdul-Ali posted.

“There has been talk, among Muslims and non-Muslims,” she said.

“At the same time,” she added, “no one’s really sure what to do about it. At the very least we can sympathize with her.”

Abdul-Ali said a personal reply from Gumbs was promised to her in an e-mail she received from Kerrigan and that though she has not received one yet, she was going to allow “a little more time.”

In the meantime, she said, she is focused on her future in medicine. “It’s going to be a reality, it’s just a matter of where,” she said.

As for Einstein, Abdul-Ali said, “No medical school in the world is worth putting yourself through that type of treatment.”