First-generation Arab-American USU Medical Student Hopes to Spread Cultural Awareness, Understanding

Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood, a USU medical student, combines his multicultural background and family's support to pursue a career in military medicine, aiming to bring cultural awareness and understanding.

A group of military personnel in a field, dressed in camouflage uniforms. One of them, with a nametag reading "DAWOOD," is speaking to the group. The others are attentively listening. They all have serious expressions, indicative of a discussion on an important topic. The setting suggests they may be in a training exercise or briefing.
Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood (center), a Uniformed Services University (USU) medical student, is a
first-generation Arab-American who hopes to spread cultural awareness, and understanding of immigrant
communities as he enters the medical career field. (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)

January 4, 2024 by Ian Neligh

The critical skills to diagnose and ultimately care for a patient come from a physician’s rigorous education and training.

Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood
Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood says his
drive to be a doctor comes from his interest
in serving his community and the strong
motivation of his family. (Photo credit:
Tom Balfour, USU)
But what inspires them to help others is drawn from a powerful combination of their background and life experiences.

For Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood, a Uniformed Services University (USU) medical student, his drive comes from his desire to serve his community and the strong motivation of his family.

“I really could not have done any of this without the support of my family, whether (being in the United States) or even something as small as having the opportunity to pursue medicine,” Dawood says, “…Just the fact that I am here and have the opportunity is really in large part thanks to unwavering support of my family.”

Now a fourth-year medical school student, Dawood hopes to pursue a career in general surgery following graduation. 

He says as both an Arab-American and a first-generation U.S. citizen he hopes to bring about cultural awareness, understanding and emphasizes the importance of immigrants and their children making positive changes within the systems they are a part of.

His mother and father immigrated from Syria and Iraq, two countries experiencing war in recent decades. He admits the unfortunate reality that other equally capable children in those countries aren’t offered the same opportunities he was afforded.

Parlo Italiano

Dawood says his mother initially immigrated from Syria to the U.S. because she wanted to pursue a career in journalism.

“She eventually ended up getting a doctorate in Human Development and Family Science in Los Angeles,” Dawood says. “But my dad was drafted into the Persian Gulf War as a part of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, during which time his family immigrated to the U.S. and arranged for his and my uncle’s release following a certain number of years of military service. That’s how they eventually both found their way to Los Angeles.”

Dawood grew up in Southern California with his brother and sister, but when he was seven years old his mother moved them to Italy.

“I spent three years of my childhood in Italy, learned the language, went through their curriculum, and didn’t go to an American school,” says Dawood. “Eventually I moved back to California to finish middle school and then started high school in Pennsylvania.”

Dawood admits it was a big shift, and his memories from that time and going to school in Italy are still vivid.

“I think they were such fundamental years to my development as a person,” Dawood says. “I became very independent during those years, especially because my father was no longer around, and it was a lot more of a personal responsibility to help my mom manage three kids.”

He says the experience forced him to grow up a little faster than other children.

“But at the same time, I still communicate with my friends from Italy — there’s a very, very strong sense of community,” Dawood says. “I still have family friends that I visit often from there that talk with me regularly. So, we made some very strong connections with people that had helped us during very enriching, but challenging, times.”

He says he learned to speak Italian so well that even the natives couldn’t tell that he wasn’t a naturally born Italian when he spoke.

“Nobody could tell I was not a native speaker,” says Dawood.

In time it was decided to return to the United States. He says entering school in the U.S. after years in an Italian school made for a difficult transition.

“It became a familiar situation being the new student in a school. I think the biggest challenge though was that moving around, especially across countries, made it difficult to establish a sense of identity,” says Dawood. “At the time, I never told anyone of my ethnic background.  Society convinced me that it was not one to be particularly proud of, so nobody knew we were Arab growing up. It was not until more recently that it became a fundamental part of my identity.”

A group of five medical students outdoors, each wearing white lab coats and stethoscopes. They are holding flags representing different branches of the United States military and the U.S. Public Health Service. The flags are the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Public Health Service. They are smiling and appear proud as they represent the intersection of medicine and military service.
Dawood (second from right), a fourth-year medical school student, hopes to pursue a career in general
surgery following graduation this year. (Photo courtesy of Navy Ensign Jimmy Dawood, USU)

Military Service

Dawood says growing up his mother always pushed him toward the idea of one day becoming a doctor.

“I was always good at math, science and enjoyed learning, so it has always been told to me that ‘you’re going to be a doctor,’” Dawood says. “That reason wasn’t enough, but I eventually found my path to it… I like to think that we have a responsibility to help use whatever skills or talents we have to help the people around us.”

He initially didn’t think his path would lead him to becoming a military doctor until his brother joined the Marines.

“My original reason in choosing to join was because my brother enlisted in the Marines and I wanted to serve and help that population,” Dawood says. “I wanted to work with them — I love their dedication to their work, and I think they kind of are the epitome of what a disciplined fighting force, or disciplined organization in general, can look like.”

Dawood admired that about them and can still remember the first time he stepped foot on Parris Island and heard the synchronized marching at four in the morning when he attended his brother’s graduation.

“I thought it was a beautiful thing,” says Dawood. “Those reasons haven’t changed but I have come to recognize how I can have a broader positive impact, not only as a physician but as a representation of my community.”

Dawood eventually applied to USU, was accepted into the school of medicine, and began his new life in the Navy and as a medical school student.

“The USU family is great,” Dawood says, adding it’s a unique environment and accepting of different points of view. 

He says for his future patients that come from a minority or from part of a marginalized community he wants them to know that he understands that perspective.

“I’ve had patients come to me and tell me, ‘Oh, I’m second-generation Lebanese,’ ‘I’m third-generation Jordanian,’ or patients I’ve had that only speak Arabic,” Dawood says. 

According to Dawood, the reality is that one day he might be in an overseas setting in which many of his patients will only speak Arabic or come from one of those communities. 

“And when they see a physician that shares that same background, I hope it provides them with some level of comfort and hope knowing that somebody is going to regard them with compassion, respect and treat them as if they were their family.”