December 12, 2022

A bridge to success: Occupational therapy graduate overcomes obstacles to earn second WSU degree

Once told not to apply to college, Ala Sarsour earns master’s degree

Ala Sarsour at the American Occupational Therapy Association Conference. He's wearing a green WSU OT shirt and smiling.
Ala Sarsour at the American Occupational Therapy Assocation's national conference. 

Seeing him now, you would have no idea that Ala Sarsour was once told he didn’t have what it takes to earn a college degree. As a soon-to-be graduate of not one but two Wayne State University programs, Sarsour has defied the odds and proven to himself — and everyone else — that he’s more than capable.

It wasn’t an easy road, but Sarsour will soon graduate from Wayne State University’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Master of Occupational Therapy Program.

Who is Ala Sarsour?

Sarsour, one of six kids, is the first in his Palestinian-Muslim family to pursue a professional graduate degree.

Growing up, he wasn’t the best student, which is why he was advised to not apply for college — but he didn’t let that deter him.

“I wasn’t hurt or sad; it was just something I was told,” said Sarsour. “I realized what I needed was to be more patient with myself. I knew college would be a challenge, that it would take me a lot more time than it would other people. But once I accepted that, I found my footing and that drove me.”

So, Sarsour applied everywhere — and was rejected by all but community colleges. That is, until Wayne State accepted him through a bridge program that eases students into higher education. He was part of a cohort with other students like him — those who needed more time. “Somebody saw potential in us,” reflected Sarsour. “It showed me that maybe, just maybe, I was capable of doing these things. It motivated me to go harder, showed me that I have potential for a reason.”

And before Sarsour knew it, he was doing the things he had worked so hard to do — and then some.

A Warrior in the making

Ala Sarsour sitting on concrete steps, wearing a light blue button up, navy tie, and navy pants.
Ala sitting outside at the American Occupational Therapy Assocation's national conference. 

Passionate about sports and how the body moves, Sarsour earned his undergraduate degree in kinesiology from the Wayne State College of Education.

He thought he would pursue physical therapy or athletic training. But while working as a patient sitter at a hospital, Sarsour discovered something unexpected: occupational therapy. “I saw firsthand the impact that occupational therapists have on people’s lives. From teaching patients to do things like dress, wash and brush their teeth, I saw the significance of this often-underrated aspect of life,” Sarsour said.

Everything he did from that moment on was in preparation for a career as an occupational therapist.

But it took time and patience; Sarsour was rejected by all the OT schools he applied to, including Wayne State. So, he took a gap year, worked more and kept pushing toward his goal. He did mock interviews with Wayne State professors and reached out to other students from whom he could learn — all while maintaining the belief that this is what he was meant to do.

The second time Sarsour applied to Wayne State’s OT program, not only was he was accepted, he was awarded scholarships and given the opportunity to represent WSU at national OT conferences. “It’s an honor,” said Sarsour. “I never imagined myself in this position, and I’m glad I could represent WSU. I feel like it’s my duty to give back because they were the only school that gave me a chance and unlocked the potential that I have today.”

Ala Sarsour, occupational therapist

Ala Sarsour standing in front of the AOTA sign.
Ala standing next to the AOTA sign at the American Occupational Therapy Assocation conference.

Next for Sarsour is a plan to work with kids on the autism spectrum. Having worked with Applied Behavior Analysis as a tech for years, Sarsour experienced firsthand how important it is to not only connect with kids but to take the time to understand them.

For him, it’s all about building rapport. “They need to trust you before anything. It’s important to always figure out the underlying challenges and what’s causing them, rather than solve the immediate issue at hand,” said Sarsour. “Something about connecting with these kids, having a better understanding of them and realizing who they are and what they need, is so impactful to me.”

Sarsour also is driven by being seen and setting an example for the kids he works with. As a Palestinian-Arab male, there aren’t many people who look like him in the OT field. “Kids seeing me and knowing there’s someone like me who is understanding of them allows me to, hopefully, be a role model for them,” added Sarsour. “It’s very important to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. Being visible and providing an opportunity for better understanding could provide someone else who looks different with a sense of comfort, I hope.”

In speaking to someone like him, someone who wants to chase after something they’re told isn’t possible, Sarsour would say this: Stay true to yourself. You know who you are and you can do anything you want to do. Stay patient and everything will fall into place.

By Katheryn Kutil

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