Thomas Sapienza

Student Spotlight: Thomas Sapienza, BS Chemistry/MS Pharmaceutical Chemistry ‘17

October 10, 2016

  • At MCPHS, we believe you can explore the world while making it a better place. That’s why we offer multiple service-learning programs, including Volunteer Morocco, through the Center for International Studies (CIS).

    Volunteer Morocco was co-founded by Professor Aziz El Madi, an adjunct instructor of Chemistry at MCPHS. A two-week program, Volunteer Morocco students support the community in ways that improve healthcare access, delivery and education. Beyond sightseeing (though there is that too), students have opportunity to visit Morocco’s rural and urban areas, as well as observe and support Moroccan medical professionals in health clinics and in the city of Agadir’s 500-bed hospital.

    For Thomas Sapienza, BS Chemistry/MS Pharmaceutical Chemistry ‘17, joining the program was a life-changing opportunity, one that eventually led to a longer return trip to Morocco to do independent research.

    “I got my passport five days before I left [for the first trip with Volunteer Morocco]. And the moment I got there I knew I had made a great decision, one that would undoubtedly change my life. The trip was everything I hoped it would be, plus so much more than I could’ve expected,” says Thomas. “A good friend of mine once said that the more you travel, the more you realize you know nothing.”

    Thomas shared more about how his extraordinary experiences in Morocco convinced him to change his major and how the leadership of Professor El Madi continues to inspire him every day.

    Had you ever been to Morocco before?

    I had never been outside the U.S. before, and quite frankly, I haven’t traveled much in my life at all, so Morocco was quite the leap for me. When I told my parents about it, they were both a little nervous and just like any parents worried about my wellbeing. I was nervous about going as well, I knew little about the country and knew little about being in a foreign place where I did not speak the language. However, my worries were put down within the first couple hours of being there when I realized just how genuine and amazing the people of Morocco were. From the moment I landed I was treated with nothing but respect and gratitude from every person I met. The appreciation shown by each Moroccan we met and helped was truly awe-inspiring.

    What was your 2015 Volunteer Morocco experience like?

    I spent 14 days in Morocco doing various volunteering. While we cleaned beaches and volunteered at the hospital, the majority of our time was spent providing free healthcare assessments and medicine to rural villagers who had little to no experience with any type of healthcare assessment or personnel.

    Working side by side with Moroccan doctors and other health professionals as a team, we provided free health assessments, free medicine, and even some surgeries during which I was able to stand in. We also spent some time in Agadir’s hospital shadowing Moroccan surgeons as they made their rounds through the hospitals and performed several different surgeries.

    Morocco’s beauty is endless, from the beaches we helped clean, to the mountain ranges and deserts we drove through; I was truly left without words around each bend of the road.

    How did Professor El Madi’s leadership inspire you?

    Enough can’t be said about Aziz El Madi and his inspiring work. He’s been running Volunteer Morocco since 2008. Under his leadership and work ethic, his organization has performed over forty health clinics benefiting upwards of 13,000 people with free medicine, consultations, and referral with sponsor in case of surgery. His organization has built several classrooms for students, sponsored and started five farms with two more on the way, facilitated the planting of more than 8,000 trees, water quality research, and this fall, he plans to begin digging wells for fresh water.

    What surprised you most about the Moroccan community?

    I remember the second rural health clinic we provided was in a village never visited before by Volunteer Morocco, like many of the villages we go to. When we arrive, it is almost always the first time they’ve ever even met Aziz – or any healthcare professionals at all. The village was a three-hour drive from any major city with a road through the mountains originally made by donkeys. However, without knowing any of us, or anything we were actually going to do for them, the moment we parked our cars the village came to life.

    When we arrived everyone came out to greet us, to grab our bags, our equipment, and help us with whatever we needed. They immediately emptied the best home in the village for us to stay in. It seemed that almost everyone wanted to give us something. They brought rugs, blankets, tables, chairs, pillows, everything and anything they could in order to provide us with a comfortable stay and to show their appreciation. They then fed us a generous meal of several courses and the famous Moroccan tea.

    I found tea to be the symbol of Morocco in my mind. The welcoming gesture of serving a cup of tea and making sure everything is perfect and satisfactory truly shows the hospitality of the Moroccan people.

    After Volunteer Morocco, you returned to do independent water quality research with Professor El Madi through CIS. How did that come about?

    My first trip to Morocco was the spark. My second trip to Morocco was an entirely different experience.

    I had run into Aziz and we spoke briefly about how everything was going generally. He happened to mention the opportunity and that he really hoped I would consider it. After learning more about the opportunity and logistics, three weeks later I was in Morocco where I would stay for about a month.

    The goal of our research was to perform water quality fieldwork in two Moroccan regions, Agadir and Shtouka-Aitbaha, collecting samples of well water from specific GPS located areas to be analyzed both in the field and back at Ibn Zohr University. We mainly determined the level of chemical pollutants in the water used by Moroccans for farming and drinking, and then focused on attributing the pollution to particular sources.

    What was it like to work on research, under the instruction of Professor El Madi?

    Working under the instruction of Aziz has been an inspiring and rewarding experience. His persistence to make a difference in the community around him motivates you to do likewise. Every time I talk to Aziz he has a new goal or new project to accomplish plus all the other ones he’s already participating in. I can’t thank him enough for the opportunities he’s provided me with and the overall kindness he’s shown me.

    The second time I went to Morocco, I stayed with Aziz’s brother Khalid El Madi and his family for the first twelve days, and they treated me like I had been a part of the family for years. I am deeply grateful for that.

    Did your experiences in Morocco help define your future career aspirations?

    My time in Morocco didn’t necessarily change my mind about my future career as much as it affirmed all my thoughts and gave me the push I needed to fully commit.

    I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field and have always had a passion for chemistry. So upon returning home after my first trip from Morocco, I changed majors from the physician assistant pathway program to pursuing my masters in chemistry. I decided in Morocco that I wanted to be a physician and I believe having a background in chemistry would not only enhance my resume for medical school but also give me a proper background for research later in my career as a doctor. I hope to one day participate in medical research on the forefront of degenerative brain diseases and other neurological disorders.

    Do you have plans to travel back to Morocco in the future?

    Yes, I hope to remain with the organization and continue to work with Aziz. I may be traveling back in the summer of 2017 to continue my research, as well as participate in many other programs including the health clinics, farm buildings, and several other projects.

    What is your advice for a student who is considering studying or volunteering abroad?

    If you’re on the fence on whether or not to do it, just do it and don’t look back.

    The first time I went I had months and months to think about the decision. Upon leaving the country for the first time I was nervous and excited and did not necessarily know what to expect. Little did I know that first decision would change my major, align my goals, and allow me to be apart of something much bigger then myself.

    The second time I went, I heard about the opportunity, bought a plane ticket, and arrived in Morocco where I would remain for a month by myself – within three weeks. The experience I gained, the people I met, and the lessons I’ve learned only happened because I didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity.

    How has your volunteer experience abroad helped you grow as a person?

    Every corner I turned, I was met with real world realities previously seen on the news, but now witnessed in person.

    I am extremely fortunate to have been born in the situation I was, to have been given the opportunities that I’ve been given, and to be able to share my story in hopes of inspiring others just as I’ve been inspired. My volunteer experiences have taught me to appreciate many things I previously overlooked and to not ignore the problems of the world just because they’re not mine.

    The Center for International Studies is currently accepting applications from current students for the Volunteer Morocco (as well as its Peru option!) summer program in the spring.