Middle Eastern Couple Makes Bold Move for American Dream

Aug. 3, 2023

At the University of Rochester’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health, dentists train to become specialists, like an orthodontist or an oral surgeon, among others. But the admissions rate is very competitive; they receive some 1200 applications each year for only 50 open spots.  

A selfie of the family of four on an airplane
Drs. Almirza and Alwaely moved to the U.S. to give their sons a more stable life.

A married couple from the Middle East knows this too well. In 2016, they moved to the U.S. to provide a more stable life for their two sons, age 11 and 13. They had family in Washington State, so that’s where they settled. Both the husband, Dr. Mohammed Almirza and his wife Dr. Furqan Alwaely are dentists, but to practice in the U.S., all dentists trained internationally must first take an advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD) course.

“We researched many programs, but the only one we were interested in was Eastman,” explained Dr.  Almirza. “My previous faculty in Dubai advised me to join Eastman, and one of my friends who was in the program said it was very rigorous and beneficial. For these reasons we decided to apply in 2017.”

After visiting Eastman for the initial interview, Furqan’s determination to get accepted became stronger.

“I knew when I visited the very first time that this is the place I want to be trained,” she said. “Not just for the quality program, but I was also impressed by the number of services available to serve the community.”

But neither Mohammed or Furqan were accepted that year. Or the next.  That’s when they made a bold move.

Despite their families’ objections, they moved across the country to Rochester, NY, enrolled their sons in school. They went to Eastman Institute for Oral Health’s main building and asked the ambassador in the lobby for assistance.

A selfie of Mohammed and Furqan by Niagara Falls.
Mohammed and Furqan checking out the area attractions as they waited to hear from EIOH Admissions.

“When I heard that there were two people in the lobby who wanted to enroll, I was really surprised,” said Linda Lipani, EIOH Registrar. “So we invited them up to the office and discussed their options. They expressed their strong interest in being trained at Eastman, and wanted to know what they needed to do to be accepted.”

Since they had not been selected the last two years, Linda explained to them that a preceptorship—where they can audit classes and observe and assist in the clinic-- would be their only option.

In 2019, they were both accepted to a 6-month Preceptorship. Determined to prove themselves, Furqan was able to share her experience and passion for treating patients with special needs. Mohammed demonstrated his strong work ethic and willingness to help wherever needed.

“I thought long and hard about the huge risk we were taking,” Mohammed recalled about moving state to state and the challenges it presented for their sons. “What a tragic ending it would be if it didn’t work out.”

Linda Lipani is smiling in between Mohammed and Furqan
Mohammed and Furqan appreciated all the support from EIOH Registrar Linda Lipani (center) and faculty.

“Everyone was asking us about a Plan B and they were shocked when we told them there wasn’t one,” Furqan added. “When you have just one direction, then you put everything you have into it.”

Persistence paid off and their strategy worked. They quickly demonstrated their skills, their experience, their dedication to high quality care, all of which led to their being accepted into the EIOH AEGD program the following year.

“We are so grateful for all the support we received along the way,” Mohammed said. “Everyone in the Registrar’s office and the faculty really supported us a lot.”

The couple standing outside by the Eastman Dental sign

“Over the last few years, what a pleasure it has been getting to know Furqan and Mohammed,” said Dr. Sangeeta Gajendra, clinical chief, Community Dentistry. “Furqan has a heart for patients with special needs, and we have two departments dedicated to patients with special needs. During Covid we were short staffed in all our clinics and Mohammed gave up his admin time and went wherever he was needed. He was chosen to be the ombudsmen for our biggest department. They are such hard working, delightful people who are great with our patients, co-residents, faculty and staff.”

“He took on the ombudsman role to help his co-residents resolve issues and to help leadership better understand resident concerns,” added Linda Lipani. “His gentle demeanor, ability to get along with everyone and his desire to make things right help him excel. Residents trust him and he gets good things done.”

“Both Drs. Almirza and Alwaely have been tremendous assets to the General Dentistry Department,” said Dr. Mike Yunker, EIOH associate professor and assistant program director for AEGD.  “They have been very active participants in the program and both have functioned as teaching assistants--Dr. Almirza in Oral Surgery, Endodontics and Orthodontics, and Dr. Alwaely in Endodontics and the treatment of patients with Special needs and complex medical conditions. They both have a strong desire to help others, an unbelievable work ethic, and dynamic, outgoing personalities.”

“They were always being great team players,” added Dr. Hans Malmstrom, professor and chair, General Dentistry and the director of the two-year AEGD program. “When they were preceptors, fellows and residents, they were always willing to assist the dental assistants and other staff in any way they could, even as dental assistants when we had a difficult time with staff during the pandemic.”

Dental Site Director for URMC’s Complex Care Center Dr. Adela Planerova encouraged Dr. Alwaely to apply for a fellowship with the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program. The LEND program

Furqan sitting next to a patient in a dental chair.
Dr. Alwaely has a special gift for treating patients with special needs.

provides a comprehensive interdisciplinary training experience to equip professionals with the knowledge, skills and leadership qualities necessary to make a positive impact in patients’ lives and their families.

“They both achieved great skills and confidence to provide care for patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Dr. Adela Planerova, dental site director at the URMC Complex Care Center. “And they always exhibited such kindness and understanding when treating patients with special needs.”

Before her LEND fellowship was completed, Dr. Alwaely was recognized with the Christine Burns Ideal Project Award for her advocacy of patient rights and improving medical and dental services for this patient population.

Mohammed and Furqan holding their certificates at graduation.
It's official! They graduated from their AEGD programs this summer.

The couple graduated from their respective programs in late June and have been invited to join the EIOH faculty.

“I’m so happy and can say I’m really thankful for the people who appreciated our efforts over the last four years,” said Mohammed about the faculty appointment. “It was not a normal four years, with all the challenges of Covid and the circumstances within that timeframe, but working as faculty at Eastman is an amazing end!”

“It’s a dream come true,” said Furqan about becoming EIOH faculty. “This is our time to help others, train others, help the beautiful community of people with special needs. Eastman is a second family for us.”