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Lessons of Hope

Alumna Roxanne Aga is a medical student with a humanitarian calling.

Lessons of Hope

In fifth grade, Hector Martinez struggled each time his teacher called on him to read aloud.

The chubby 9-year-old with a mass of curly black hair stuttered and confused his d’s with his b’s.

Roxanne Aga, a then-sophomore reading tutor through USC College’s Joint Educational Project, was paired with Hector, a Vermont Elementary School student.

Nine years later, Martinez has lost his baby fat and stutter. But he still has his tutor, Aga, now 28 and a third-year medical student at UC Davis.

Throughout the years, Aga has taken Martinez to museums and theme parks, introduced him to literature and gotten to know his parents, El Salvadoran immigrants. Aga communicates in Spanish with Martinez’s mother, who doesn’t speak English.

Now a 19-year-old freshman at West L.A. Community College, Martinez credits his intellectual and personal growth in large part to Aga.

“My big thing was reading,” Martinez recalled of his boyhood. “Roxanne was assigned as my tutor. Now books are a big part of my life.”

Martinez now enjoys the works of existentialist writers such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Kafka. He writes poetry. But perhaps Aga’s greatest gift is that she instilled in Martinez a passion for community service.

“I want to be about making a difference in the world,” he said. “Making a difference like Roxanne does, one person at a time.”

Neuroscientist William McClure, a professor of biological sciences, was an adviser for Aga, who in 2000 earned her bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

McClure recalled when, as a junior, Aga went on a summer scientific expedition on the island of Dominica in the West Indies, a mission sponsored by Helen Bing of the Helen and Peter Bing Foundation.

“She came back a changed woman,” McClure said. “After that, she wanted to go on to do something that provided medical aid to impoverished countries, where it’s hell on Earth for all the people who need health care.”

Aga went on to earn her master’s in public health at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2001, she decided to study tuberculous meningitis among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. She did so, in part, to “connect with my roots.” Her father, a motel manager, migrated from Pakistan.

Her mother migrated from France, and growing up, Aga preserved that part of her family heritage by becoming fluent in French. As a result of scholarships, she attended a private French school in West L.A. through the 12th grade.

Aga’s experiences in Karachi, Pakistan, marked a defining moment in her life. The trigger was a 3-year-old girl who had such severe meningitis she suffered from convulsions and remained in a semi-coma.

“She left an impact on me that I can’t even describe,” Aga said. “I wasn’t even in medical school yet, but I would go see her in the hospital every day and every night.”

She could sense the young child’s will to live.

“Every time I walked into her room, there was a glow of light around her,” Aga said. “To have endured so much at such a young age. She was the strongest being I had ever encountered.”

When Aga squeezed the girl’s tiny hand, her seizures subsided.

“She knew I was there,” she said. “When I touched her, she became a little bit more calm. Those are the moments that you never forget. That experience pushed me to go into medicine further.”

In a way, she felt the same when she met Martinez.

“I saw that same light of hope,” she said. “I knew he was different than the other kids. I couldn’t let that go.”

After Pakistan, Aga continued to study tuberculosis at the Louis Pasteur Institute’s lab on the French Island of Guadeloupe, and then among the homeless in San Francisco with Stanford University.

“Roxanne Aga is a gem,” McClure said. “I have no doubt that this world is a better place with her in it. I take such pride in helping to train her. But I did nothing in helping her become a humanitarian. She had that when she walked through the door.”

Aga refused to consider that she helps change lives, such as in the case of Hector Martinez.

“It’s completely the opposite,” Aga said. “He’s changed my life. He’s the one who’s been a gift to me.”

As a doctor, she wants to continue working with underserved communities and in developing countries.

“I’ll see where it takes me,” she said. “But I’ll tell you one thing. I never want to lose that local connection. I want to work wherever I can have a direct impact on people’s lives.”

This past summer, her medical quest took her to Geneva, where she interned for two months with the World Health Organization at the Department of HIV/AIDS. Aga was among a dozen medical and public health students selected as a 2006 Global Health Fellow.

Upon her return to the U.S., Aga said she valued learning how health policy is developed on a global scale.

“But also to see how it translates to a single mother of three,” she said, “who’s living with HIV and shunned from her community because of her diagnosis.”