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Seizing Opportunity

Aspiring physician Kevin Ashi’s mission to solve global public health challenges is a path paved through life experiences, hard work, and a philosophy built on taking chances.

People  |  May 16, 2018  |  By Tony Allen
UNLV student Kevin Ashi

UNLV undergrad and aspiring physician Kevin Ashi hope to increase the availability of preventive health around the world. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

As an American child growing up in a rural Mexican town, Kevin Ashi’s experience with healthcare was simple: you only go to the doctor when you’re really sick.

So when he left his small community in central Mexico and moved with his parents to Las Vegas eight years ago, the aspiring physician was surprised to see how common it was for people to go to the doctor for yearly checkups and preventative care. He’d always been interested in medicine, but it was eye opening for him to see the positive impact preventive care has on quality of life for so many Americans.

Inspired with a new perspective on medicine, Ashi decided then and there to forge a career path dedicated to helping underserved people and increasing the availability of preventive health around the world.

“I normalized disease growing up without ever considering prevention as a strategy to combat it,” said Ashi, a senior biology major and member of UNLV’s Honors College. “When I moved back to the U.S., I gained a whole new perspective on medicine. There’s a general belief in Mexico that you go to a doctor only when you’re very sick. Access to preventative care is so critically needed, but sadly missing, in so many places around the world.”

Ashi and his family saw opportunity in Las Vegas and moved to the valley in 2010. After graduating with honors from Las Vegas’ Palo Verde High School in 2014, Ashi brought his insatiable drive to make a difference to UNLV.

Informed by his experiences growing up in Mexico and after witnessing subpar healthcare while visiting family in Syria, Ashi is determined to complete his bachelor's degree this fall and then go on to earn both an M.D. and master’s in public health to solve public health challenges in developing countries.

To do that, he knows he needs to make the most of every opportunity on campus. He joined the Honors College as a biology/pre-med major and has a minor in French – which included a semester studying abroad. He also participates in undergraduate research, tutors students in the Academic Success Center, he’s lobbied for STEM research funding in Washington, D.C., and two years ago he co-founded the university’s Latino Pre-Medical Student Association.

“It’s all about perspective,” Ashi says of his daunting workload. “If you were born and raised here, you may not realize that many opportunities exist. It’s important to make the most of them.”

Creating Opportunity

As a sophomore in 2016, Ashi and four of his peers – all aspiring physicians – noticed that something was missing on campus. UNLV was continuing its rise up the ranks of the nation’s most diverse colleges, and talks of a new medical school were heating up, but there wasn’t a dedicated student organization for Latino students interested in healthcare careers. So they started one. 

Ashi is the type of person who grew up with a clear view of opportunities that many either take for granted or ignore. He was also well aware of the numbers: in Southern Nevada, nearly a third of the population is Latino yet they make up only 3 percent of physicians.

“It’s a huge gap, and we need to do more to encourage young Latinos to pursue a career in the health fields,” says Ashi.

Just two years later, the UNLV Latino Pre-Medical Student Association is 45 members strong and growing. In addition to peer support and networking, a key focus for the group is hosting education and outreach events in local schools.

“The reason I’m in the Honors College is because I have an older sibling who helped guide me,” says Ashi. “Many young people don’t have a guide, and they may not think college is an option because they either can’t afford it or they don’t want to burden their families. We need to be a positive voice that they can do it, that if they believe in themselves they can make it happen.”

Ashi and his colleagues are also collaborating with the School of Medicine to develop the new school’s Latino Medical Student Association and to create mentorship opportunities for undergraduates with current medical students.

Rebels Take Chances

Eight years after coming to Las Vegas – and four years after starting his academic career at UNLV – Ashi’s personal experience with healthcare abroad fuels his aspiration to make a difference in public health just as strongly as the day he made up his mind. He’ll get first-hand experience summer when he participates in Harvard University’s Multidisciplinary International Research Training program in Peru.

He learned of the program around Thanksgiving and spent months secretly laboring over the application. He didn’t want to let his friends know he was applying in case he wasn’t selected, but he said he needed to give it a shot.

Ashi’s risk paid off, and he’ll spend most of June and July in Peru’s capital city of Lima researching emerging public health issues with the Harvard School of Public Health.

“I have experience abroad, but this will allow me to begin researching public health internationally,” says Ashi. “You need to be mentally and emotionally strong to succeed in this line of work, and mentorship through this program will be so important as I begin my career in public health.”

Ashi will be back at UNLV this fall for his final semester. Then it’s off to medical school, some additional study abroad, and, eventually, maybe, the World Health Organization.

His advice for fellow students?

“Don’t be afraid to take chances.”