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Berkeley Public Health Student Profile: Hiba Elkhatib

Hiba Elkhatib, 20

  • Undergraduate, Public Health
  • Hometown: Folsom, CA
  • Currently lives: Berkeley
  • Preferred pronouns: she/her/hers

What type of degree are you working toward?

I am working towards my bachelor’s in public health and have completed my minor in global public health. I am also on the pre-med track and the goal is medical school or an MD/MPH program.

What are you focusing on during your time as an undergraduate public health major?

I founded my organization, Palestinian Public Health, last year and so I would say a focus of mine is global health inequities and their parallels to the inequities we see in the United States. 

In the future, I would like to potentially pursue a focus on environmental health or maternal health. 

Why did you choose to go into public health?

I came [to Berkeley] as a freshman who was a cognitive science major and I am so grateful that I was able to realize that public health really is where I wanted to invest my time. Almost every activity I do now relates to public health, and to be able to say that I am studying, doing research, and [engaging in] extracurriculars around something I am actually passionate about is such a privilege and makes me so happy. 

I chose to go into public health because I knew that I wanted to learn and advocate to help prevent health issues in the United States and abroad by emphasizing that a lot of the health inequities we see are not just a result of biological complications but really are due to historical and current social, economic, racial, and political injustices. 

In addition, I want to go into medicine in the future and so I wanted a degree that would set me up for being a well-rounded health care provider. 

Furthermore, being a Palestinian American heavily impacted my choice to switch to public health as the Palestinian struggle is a really great example of health inequities at play due to social, economic, and political factors. I wanted a major where I could write, research, and do more for my community. I wanted to raise awareness of the high mortality rates that Palestinians experience by highlighting that it is a consequence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

For example, Palestinian cancer patients living in Gaza are dying not only from this deadly disease but due to the fact that they need permits to receive treatment outside of Gaza; they can die waiting for a permit. Imagine having cancer and still having to advocate for yourself by providing an explanation as to why you need treatment. Having two relatives pass away from cancer, I know the feeling firsthand of worrying about the health and life of a relative with cancer. So it is enraging and heartbreaking to think about also having to worry about dealing with the barriers the occupation poses while already having to cope with the fact that you or a loved one has cancer. The injustice Palestinians face is not something that is frequently discussed in the classroom, so whenever there is an opportunity to write or present on Palestinian health issues I use my public health background to make that happen.

What motivates you and what is your passion?

My mother, family, and Palestinian background motivate me. My mom is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met and I am really privileged to have a role model like her in my life. My Palestinian background is the root of my strength and has allowed me to understand the world from a place of strength, perseverance, compassion, and hope. 

My religion is also something that motivates and comforts me in times of struggle and hardship. There is a verse in the Quran that states, “Surely, with hardship, comes ease” (Qur’an 94:6) and I think this quote is something that can bring anyone comfort. It reminds me that bumps in the road are what prepare you for success and the ease that will eventually come. I want to be able to make an impact in someone’s life even if that means just one person. I want my future career to feel like every workday is helping or impacting at least one person’s life. I believe a degree in public health and a career in medicine paves the way for making that happen.

What community involvement activities are you part of?

I am involved in multiple community involvement activities that each have their own passion origin story. 

To start, I am the founder and president of Palestinian Public Health. I founded this organization in Summer 2020, which was the same summer I finished most of my classes for my minor in global public health. 

Creating Palestinian Public Health was always a dream and idea I had but that summer really pushed me to make it happen. After taking a couple of classes on global public health issues, it reminded me how there are so many gaps in literature surrounding the most vulnerable populations and there is so much awareness and action that need to be taken for populations facing grave health disparities due to decades-long injustices. Palestine is one great example of this issue and I didn’t see it discussed adequately in my courses. 

I am also the social media director for an amazing nonprofit called the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative (ALCSC). It is composed of students and physicians who are passionate about advocating for lung cancer screening and combating the stigma attached to lung cancer patients. We started ALCSI at UC Berkeley this year and I am vice president for the Berkeley chapter. 

In my hometown, I work and write for a great organization called the Neighbor Program that is dedicated to amplifying Black and Indigenous voices. This space has also allowed me to write and spread awareness about the Palestinian struggle.

Can you tell us about any research you’ll be conducting this year?

This year I am conducting research on water systems in Palestine for my honors thesis, finishing up research on COVID-19 in a refugee camp in Palestine called the Aida refugee camp, and doing research on lung cancer in affiliation with Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital.

How do you think UC Berkeley School of Public Health has set you up for success in your future career?

UC Berkeley has given me the opportunity to collaborate and learn from a diverse array of individuals, some of whom have even turned into mentors. I have been able to use my public health knowledge toward founding an organization that has opened up doors for representation I never thought I’d see coming in as an undergrad. I am very grateful for the professors I have learned from and who have taught me skills that will aid me now and in the future.

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