Photo courtesy of Omar Ullah.

Omar Ullah, the 2020 Wolfson Scholar. 

Of the more than 11,700 Matadors eligible to graduate from California State University, Northridge in May, six individuals were singled out for special recognition as outstanding graduating students. And if all goes well and it’s safe to do so, CSUN will fete these honorees in person at the university’s Commencement ceremonies at year’s end.

Among those recognized in May was Omar Ullah, this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the highest honor awarded to a graduating senior. It is presented each year in memory of CSUN’s first vice president, Leo Wolfson. Not only must the student have an exceptional academic record, but he or she must also have made significant contributions to CSUN or the community through co-curricular and extracurricular activities.

There’s a mantra that Ullah recites to himself at times of pressure or self-doubt: “Learn for the sake of others.”

“I truly feel that my privilege of pursuing higher education charges me with the responsibility of fighting for others who were never given the chance to receive a college education,” he said. “So many people around the world — especially in the developing countries where my parents were born and raised, and even here in the developed world — dream of pursuing a basic education, but don’t have that opportunity.

“Education is transformative empowerment,” said Ullah, the first in his mother’s side of the family to go to college, “because it gives somebody the autonomy, intellectual currency and a powerful platform from which to advocate for others.”

Ullah, 24, of Palmdale, is determined to use that power to transform his community for the better.

“I want to become a primary care physician who serves traditionally underserved members of my community,” said Ullah, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental and occupational health, with a concentration in pre-medical studies, social justice and public health. “My goal is to build our community’s first-ever entirely community-led and community-designed primary care clinic. I want to partner with my community members and ask them what they envision in the clinic of their dreams, then build it together.”

During his time at CSUN, Ullah — who had a cumulative grade point average (GPA) during his time at CSUN of 3.94 — worked with the Monday Night Mission to provide food to the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, spent seven years as a volunteer at Antelope Valley Hospital and served as a community ambassador for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity Planning Commission, among many other roles. As part of CSUN’s BUILD PODER research training program, he served as a research assistant on two projects — one examining the effects of ethnic-racial discrimination on mental and physical health, and the other examining the social and cultural factors influencing the academic, psychological and physical well-being of ethnic minority and immigrant youth.

Currently, he is working with local food-justice advocates to establish a network of micro food pantries at mosques throughout the San Fernando Valley.

Ullah’s passion for tackling health disparities and the lack of access to healthcare among low-income communities of color is fueled by the experiences of his own working-class family. His immigrant parents — his mother is from Jalisco, Mexico, and his father is from Bihar, India — lost nearly everything, including their house and most of their belongings, during the financial collapse of 2008. Shortly thereafter, his parents were both diagnosed with debilitating chronic diseases.

“Due to our insufficient healthcare coverage, I [watched] my parents suffer as their health declined,” he said. “Because my parents couldn’t afford the cost of medical treatment, they avoided seeing the doctor — to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. I felt a deep sense of helplessness and frustration at our broken healthcare system, which colors the experiences of countless low-income Americans in accessing healthcare every day. I knew I had to go to college to become a physician so that I could come back to my community, open a clinic and provide high-quality healthcare, regardless of ability to pay.

“Systematic poverty, injustice and racism result in poorer health outcomes for underserved communities, and perpetuate [many] of the barriers these communities face in being able to access healthcare services,” he said. “As a family physician, I aim to tackle those needs head-on, and eventually work on evidence-based public policy that uplifts and empowers underserved communities.”

He may even run for public office, Ullah said, if that’s what it takes to make a change.

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