To have been homeless and living in a tiny motel room with four other people, to have been married at 16 and divorced at 21, doesn’t seem like the typical background of someone in medical school.
But make no mistake: Sherine Khanbijian is thriving in medical school, a proud member of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine class of 2024.
How this first-generation American, whose parents immigrated from the Middle East, got to this place and time is a story spawned by the economic stress of modern-day America and the customs of a distant land — a story of how bankruptcy and the loss of a home and an ill-fated arranged marriage couldn’t rip the Khanbijian family apart, but made their love, and a young woman’s drive to become a physician, grow stronger.
“I was initially reluctant to talk openly about my experiences with the newsletter,” she said, “but ultimately I thought if at least one person becomes inspired by this story, then it’s worth it. I encourage all women to reach within and find their inner strength and capitalize on it; here is so much you can do, so many beautiful changes you can make. Nothing and no one should ever hold you back.”
When she was in middle school, Khanbijian and her two sisters moved from California to Las Vegas with their parents where job prospects for her father seemed brighter. Her father took a job as a quality assurance manager for food companies here. Her mother, who had been taken out of school by her parents to learn how to run a household, was a stay-at-home mom.
“My mother said her biggest regret was not going to school. In her country, Jordan, she never finished high school. When we were all young girls, she would tell us that the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to get an education, which she insisted would open the door to any opportunity for us,” she said. “My family prioritized my education, above all. They pushed me to study hard to get good grades, hoping for a better future for our whole family.”
Everything was going well for the family — Khanbijian was a top honor student at the College of Southern Nevada High School — until the Great Recession of the mid-to-late 2000s hit Las Vegas. Job security became shaky for her father, as it had in California. Unemployment checks for him and free school lunches for his children became the norm as he tried to fight off foreclosure of the family home. Khanbijian took a part-time clerical job with a real estate office after school and on weekends to help out.
It was about this time, just before her junior year of high school, that a man Khanbijian had barely known asked her parents for permission to marry her. Given their economic situation, Khanbijian’s parents were thrilled to hear him say he would put her through college. She said her parents deemed it a “God-sent match” and encouraged her to accept.
“While most girls my age were celebrating their Sweet 16, I was walking down the aisle (in a little chapel behind the Stratosphere) to say ‘I do’ to a man eight years older than me. Due to my culture, I did not find it strange when a much older suitor asked my parents for my hand in marriage when I was only 16. My parents did ask me to decide whether I wanted to agree to the proposal.” Today, she says she realizes she had “not been mature enough to make an informed decision on my own.”
At about the same time, her family home, where she then lived with her family and husband, was going into foreclosure and her father had entered bankruptcy proceedings. Khanbijian realized the man she married really didn’t want her going through years of education to become a physician. He wanted a family, told her how to dress and which friends she should have. The marriage was on the rocks even as she was graduating from high school.
“I did not, do not, blame my parents for my failed marriage,” said the 30-year-old third-year medical student. “They did what they did out of love. They wanted to help me.”
Soon after her high school graduation in 2010, her father decided the family would be better off in California. A member of the family had promised him a job in his liquor store. Unable to put any money down on a house or an apartment, the five-member family moved into a motel not far from Disneyland.
“Here we are, five of us living in this small motel room right by Disneyland, which is supposed to be the happiest place on earth,” Khanbijian recalled. “My husband couldn’t support me because he was living in a warehouse. My mother was cooking our daily meals on an electric grill we got at a thrift store. It was awful. We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was frightening. But the family didn’t split up. We pulled together. Love helps you through things.”
During this time, when she didn't have medical insurance, and later when she volunteered at community centers, Khanbijian came to the realization that the practice of medicine would be her life's work. “As a future physician, I will be a community leader that will advocate for health care equality and empower my patients with shared decision-making,” she said. “I recognized that being a doctor means putting others first, and doing your best to make sure someone else can be at their best.”
Back to classes
After four months at the motel, the family moved into a duplex, the first of several moves made to find low-cost housing. Khanbijian started working in retail at Macy's, saving money for community college classes and helping out with the rent. After a year off from school, in 2011 she coupled her savings with scholarships and grants to begin four years of courses that she would take at seven different community colleges in the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan area. “When you’re working and moving around as our family did, it’s hard to get the kind of classes you need at the time you need them at just one college.”
Her grades at the community colleges, all As, helped her win a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation full scholarship for transfer students to Cal State Fullerton in 2015. It was also around that time when her divorce was finalized. “After I ended the relationship, I recall my uncle telling my mom that I am ‘bint elem,’ which in Arabic basically means ‘a girl suitable for education.’ That was empowering for me to hear, and echoed my purpose.”
At Cal State Fullerton, she again received all A’s, this time in the pre-med program. “After all that my family and I had been through, I wanted to do my best in school.”
Volunteering as a health navigator in community centers while an undergraduate student, she connected patients from underserved backgrounds with community resources. “It was something my own family would have benefited from — we didn’t have access to health care and other things for a long time when we were really struggling economically,” she said, recalling how she helped a man find food banks and a job. “His diabetes improved and he felt better. The experience taught me the importance of addressing health holistically. It helped me realize that as a physician, I need to do more than diagnose and treat symptoms. I need to understand the impact of socioeconomic factors on health outcomes and implement solutions to address those factors.”
After graduation, she worked with autistic children and oversaw programs at a health care clinic prior to being accepted at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. “I enjoyed much of my time in Las Vegas and it felt like home, so I applied. She was awarded an Engelstad Foundation full-tuition scholarship in 2020 that she says she is so thankful for. Medical school, she said, is demanding enough without financial pressure.
Only COVID-19, which she caught in her second semester of medical school, has been a major downer for her at the medical school. “Ironically, we were learning pulmonology at the time.” As she regained her health, Zoom study sessions kept her in touch with friends.
The more Khanbijian reflects on how she’s met the challenges in her life, the more she realizes how much more confident she is about what she can accomplish. “I became stronger and more empowered; I learned a lot and grew a lot. Though like a flower, the growth wasn’t without its thorns.”