Student Stories – Understanding Medicine Through the Immigrant Experience


Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the tail end of the 1980s, few Jews had been permitted to emigrate. Those who did were immediately stripped of their Soviet citizenship and made to pay an exit tax. Their assets ceded to the State, they became refugees looking for a place to settle.

Fourth-year student, Steven Zilberman’s grandparents and mother were among those who left. In the 1970s they were taken in by the US and lived among other immigrant populations in the neighborhoods of New York City. There, Steven was born and raised in an eclectic community of newcomers speaking Russian, Bengali, Spanish, Albanian, Chinese, Italian, and others. Exposure to their cultures gave him a broad perspective of humanity, its problems, diversity, and its health.

“The most interesting aspect was the support each immigrant offered the others despite huge cultural and linguistic barriers. Adults supported one another’s nascent businesses and kids helped newcomers with their ESL (English as a Second Language) coursework. This helped everyone make a life for themselves in a “foreign” environment. I learned such a lot from that.”

Working hard in a challenging environment, Steven excelled in his studies and eventually reached Vanderbilt University where he studied Biology and Marketing. While there, he felt the need to give back to other struggling communities and became involved in health fairs for Kurdish refugees.

“Many Kurdish refugees settled in Nashville, and didn’t even have basic foods. I began learning about public health and how it relates to cross-cultural interactions.”

Towards the end of his degree, he became involved in healthcare consulting.

“Friends were completing their Master’s degrees in public health and spoke enthusiastically about it. Around the same time, I learned about MSIH and was intrigued to learn about studying international health and medicine in Israel. I applied, although at that time, wasn’t fully convinced. Meanwhile, I flew to Wisconsin for an interview with a healthcare software company.”

It was during his interview that Steven understood something wasn’t right.

“As I was answering their questions, it clicked that I could best learn about and try to meet people’s needs through a career in medicine. That interview helped me understand my true direction.”

A month later Steven was accepted to MSIH.

“As soon as I found out, I knew I would go. To my family and friends, it seemed extreme, but for me it felt right.”

During third year clinical rounds, Steven discovered that his fluency in Russian was a bridge between his classmates and the Russian-speaking patients in Soroka Hospital –  MSIH’s main teaching facility.

“For the first time in my life, Russian was useful for something!”

Looking back over his first three years at MSIH, Steven admits it has been a truly life-changing experience.

“I’ve learned so much – not just about medicine, but about people and Global Health. I’m so pleased I made the decision back then to enter medicine instead of healthcare consulting.”

“Everything in medicine is interesting, but when I think about my personality and my interest in neurology and orthopedics, Physiatry (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation) is clearly the direction I want to take.”

2018 Medicine and Global Health Report