BIDDEFORD — Edward Little graduate Mustaf Shariff, who plans to become a doctor, remembers when he decided to make something out of his life.
He was a high school sophomore in his first honors class.
“I looked to the kid to the left of me and thought, 'What's the difference between me and this kid?'” Shariff said. “There was no difference between what he was getting and what I was getting, so there was no excuse for me to settle for less. I challenged myself that day. That was my moment.”
Shariff said he had two phases of high school. In the first, he took easier classes. “I just wanted to get by and play basketball.” In the second, he took harder classes. Basketball was important, but so was academics, college and what he'd be doing after college.
Shariff, 20, credits his father moving the family to Lewiston-Auburn as one reason why he's where he is today, a third-year student at the University of New England.
His family left Kenya in 1996 for Boston. In 2001 they moved to Lewiston, a move he was unhappy about.
“We said, 'Why did you bring us to Lewiston out of all places? There's nothing to do here.' I'd rather be walking the streets of Boston hanging out with my friends. It made no sense.”
Later it made sense. It was easier to do well in Lewiston-Auburn schools than in big-city schools with distractions like gangs and crime. Maine is what Shariff calls “an academic state,” a place where teachers care whether students learn. In Boston the priority of some teachers was “to get through that year with nobody attacking them,” he said.
His decision to become a doctor came from different life experiences, Shariff said.
The first was in the refugee camps in Kenya. He and other children watched “Rescue 911” when they could get to a television. Shariff didn't understand much about the show, but he knew people were helping others. “I loved this,” he said. “That planted a seed. There's a verse in the Koran that says if you save one life, it's like you've saved all mankind.”
Later in Lewiston, he went with his father on a doctor's visit. “The way the doctor treated my dad … It was a warm, caring. It hit a soft spot.” He decided that someday he'd treat people like that.
In the summer of 2008, Shariff visited his sister in a village in Kenya. The days were long and hot. “I was bored out of my mind.”
He went to a small clinic where one doctor was trying to treat many patients. He explained to the doctor he was a medical biology student from the United States and asked if there was anything he could do to help?
The doctor's facial expression “was like, 'Thank God,'” he said. Shariff proudly put on his scrub and went to work dispensing medicine and testing patients for HIV/AIDS.
He worked 11-hour days. He was tired. But helping patients “was incredible,” he said with a smile. “The books, the classrooms, the lectures are important. But without the patient experience you don't know what a doctor does. … It was another push to the right direction.”
In between his studies, Shariff said he's working on a mentor program, U-Lead, to have Somali college graduates mentor younger students. “We can be the doctors walking at Central Maine Medical Center, the engineers building city halls, the lawyers.”
When he becomes a doctor, Shariff said he's not sure where he'll go, but he's thinking about returning. He likes the idea of working where he knows the community and things people talk about. “I can say to my patients, 'EL and Lewiston are playing today,'” and they can predict who will win.
“One of my mentors told me, 'If you leave a community and don't come back, no one will ever know you were here,'” Shariff said. “That makes sense.”