Michigan State student goes from homeless to fellowship

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — It started simply as a place to grab some sleep after a night of wandering the streets, but the Grand Rapids Public Library turned into the start of a path to a premier graduate student fellowship for Raeuf Roushangar.

But even getting to that point was a struggle for Roushangar, who escaped religious bigotry and homelessness on his journey to Michigan State University.

Last month, Roushangar was awarded a $90,000 fellowship to finish his graduate studies at MSU. He was one of 30 students selected for the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. In being selected, he joins an elite list of recipients that includes U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and leading Ebola researcher Pardis Sabeti. He is the first student from Michigan State to receive the fellowship.

"What Raeuf has accomplished, between his research on omics (biological) technologies and his international nonprofit work, is remarkable — particularly in light of all that he has overcome to be in the U.S. and studying at MSU. I hope that the fellowship enables him to continue to take risks and think big," Craig Harwood, fellowship director, said in a statement to the Free Press ( http://on.freep.com/1cISJQi ).

Roushangar's journey began in the Middle East. He was born in Oman to an Iranian father and an Egyptian mother.

When he was a young boy, his dad got sick and was unable to work. That led to Oman pulling the family's visas. Roushangar's dad returned to Iran. Roushangar and his mom went to Egypt, where Roushangar was considered Iranian because of his dad.

Roushangar also was of the Baha'i faith, which didn't help in the Muslim country.

He couldn't attend public schools, so his mother worked several jobs to pay for private schooling.

"There was constant discrimination," he said. "You have to deal with that every day. That was hard as a child to do.

"At school, students shun you. Their parents don't want them to play with you. They feel like you are contagious and need to be kept away from their kids.

"You always worry about these things."

Roushangar flourished academically, despite the challenges. He placed second in the country on the college placement test, which should have guaranteed his spot at any university he wanted. But because of his faith and his father's country of origin, he was yanked from the list.

"My mom's dream was to see her son be a doctor," he said. "Such a high score should have allowed me to get into medical school."

Unable to chase his dreams, Roushangar came to the U.S. and landed in Grand Rapids, where he had relatives. He arrived with $600 and two bags of clothes.

But his relatives weren't supportive, either, and Roushangar found himself without a place to live. He wandered the streets at night and went to the library during the day to sleep.

While there, he saw some Grand Rapids Community College students studying. He offered to help them in exchange for money. They suggested he go to the school and get a job as a tutor. He did and also started as a student. He eventually transferred to MSU.

In his first year, he founded an international nonprofit organization to bring medical supplies to poor communities, Generate Help 2 Heal Generations. GH2HG has collected and shipped more than $500,000 worth of medical supplies from the U.S. to poor communities around the world.

He got his bachelor's degree in biochemistry in summer 2014. He is now in the biochemistry PhD program.

"I want to develop mathematical platforms that can be implemented for a more personalized/precision medicine," he said. "I want to develop new computational methods that can help track the response to diseases, and hopefully aid in early detection and diagnosis, possibly before the patients develop external, detectable symptoms."

The fellowship and the money that comes with it are going to help with that.

"It will give me freedom," he said. "Without the financial burdens, I'll be able to focus on my research. It will also give me a lifelong connection to other Soros fellows. That will open many doors."


Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Detroit Free Press.

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