Traveling 6,000 miles to a degree

Traveling 6,000 miles to a degree

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Loulia Al Bitar plans on a dental career and more volunteerism to help others
Loulia Al Bitar wants to bring smiles to the world. The biological sciences major, who left Syria with her mom in search of educational opportunities, plans to become a dentist.

It took a missile.

That was the final impetus for Loulia Al Bitar to leave her native Syria with her mother, Rana, six years ago and settle into Washington Township: a missile that ripped into her school.

She was 16 at the time, that precarious age for girls. She didn’t want to leave people behind, yet she knew – even though she had not been in the school when it was struck – that she had to go.

“I had undergone three school closings prior to coming here. I had to move around a lot because of that,” Al Bitar, 22, recalls of her time in capital city Damascus, close to 6,000 miles from South Jersey. “We just at that point decided it was best for me to have a stable education.”

Hard . . . but a blessing

She and her mother moved to Washington Township (Gloucester County), where they live with five other relatives and where Al Bitar completed high school.

“Obviously it was hard to make the move. I thought like it was the end of the world because I was leaving my dad, I was leaving my friends,” Al Bitar says. “But it was a blessing in disguise. When I moved here I just felt like it was a different atmosphere to learn. I was always inspired to learn. Not that the schools there didn’t inspire me, but it was more exciting to learn, to go to school here.”

She became interested in Rowan University early on. “What initially sparked my interest in Rowan was during my tour of the school I was able to see how close the tour guides were and how much of a tight-knit environment the school fostered,” she says. “I also loved the fact that it had small class sizes and was near my home.”

At Rowan, she majored in biological sciences, minored in psychology and was part of the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration in the Honors College. She started conducting research in her freshman year with Biological Sciences professor Dr. Luke Holbrook, using Avizo, a program that analyzes data from CT scans, to look at structural differences in fossils, such as tooth surface complexity, to trace their evolutionary history.

“Through Avizo, we saw a clear image of the fossils, which helped us look at similarities among different organisms and determine when they diversified,” she says.

“I have been fortunate to have her to support my research,” notes Holbrook, who called her reliable and capable of group and independent work.

Focused on dentistry

The research with Holbrook was logical for the young woman who plans to become a dentist one day.

She decided on her future career thanks to a friend who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate and underwent a dozen surgeries and thanks to the dentist who treated her friend.

“I went with her to see her dentist. Her dentist had a photo of her when she was little and was following up with her. I realized how close of a relationship they had because of the impact this had on her life,” Al Bitar says. “That just made me want to explore it, and I was able to do just that at Rowan. I thought I was given all the tools, every opportunity I could to explore that.”

She was given, and she gave.

Volunteering here and in Syria

Al Bitar, who works part time in a dental office, dedicated time outside of the classroom and lab to serving others. She was secretary of the Biology Club and founder and president of the Rowan American Student Dental Association Pre-Dental Chapter. And she was founder and president of the Rowan chapter of Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide surgeries for children with cleft lips and palates in developing countries.

“This was an organization I started exploring after talking with my friend about her experiences with a cleft lip and cleft palate,” says Al Bitar, who grew Operation Smile from three to 35 plus members from her sophomore to senior year. “It really inspired me to want to work toward raising awareness about this.”

The Rowan chapter made more than 100 smile dolls (given to calm children prior to surgery) and smile bags (to hold patients’ toiletries and other items) to donate to the Child Life Therapy program of Operation Smile and held a variety of fundraisers, including flower and bake sales.

She also maintains connections to her homeland, where her father, grandmothers and some uncles still live. She has returned to the region to visit family and to help others, including volunteering for the Saeed Society, organizing fundraisers for Syrian children and returning to Damascus her sophomore year to teach them English. 

“Loulia is clearly a service-minded individual who is committed to helping others. This is evident from her personal statement and the many service activities she lists on her résumé, but this was most evident to me in her participation in relief work overseas with refugees from her homeland,” Holbrook says.

“I had to see strife at a younger age. Seeing that firsthand made me so determined that I wanted to outweigh all that hate and ugliness with love and giving and making a positive impact,” says Al Bitar, who may do dental mission work in the future to provide free dental care to people who cannot afford services.

'The school gave me everything'

As her time at Rowan comes to an end, Al Bitar has too many fond memories of the University to select just one.

“Some of my fondest memories, however, will always be the close relationships I was able to develop with my peers, peer-leaders, and school faculty throughout my time here,” Al Bitar says. “Students here are always willing to help one another and have study meetings. The leaders in the extracurricular activities I was involved in always maintained a fun environment to work and collaborate in.

“And the faculty at this school never fail in showing their passions for their fields and being fully supportive to every student on campus. The cohesive and strong bond between every individual in this school is a memory I will always hold on to.”

Al Bitar plans to apply to dental school in the summer. “What made me realize that this field is what will fulfill my heart by giving me joy . . . is that I am able to use my creativity and love for science to be of help to people.”

She doesn’t have a set school picked out. “I’ll be happy with whatever opportunity I’m given,” says Al Bitar, who will be the first woman in her family to earn a college degree and the first dentist in her family. “I would love to specialize in maybe pediatrics or orthodontics, but I’m open to exploring other fields or even general dentistry as well.”

And she hopes to make a greater impact on Rowan one day.

“I love this school. One day I would love to be able to maybe contribute to starting a dental school here,” she says. “The school gave me everything.”