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Many Healthy Pursuits

Abdullah Zaben in his graduation cap and gown in front of the Memorial Belltower
Abdullah Zaben graduates from NC State this spring with two bachelor’s degrees, but that accomplishment is just one of many for this extraordinary Caldwell Fellow. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

Attending NC State wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Abdullah Zaben after he graduated from high school, but the nearby university definitely held an attraction for the Cary, North Carolina, native. Especially considering his interest in a pre-med academic track.

“There are a lot of good undergraduate institutions out there, but NC State just really caught my eye,” Zaben said. “I knew it had different degree programs that would suit me, like biochemistry and biology. It had all different sorts of research opportunities on campus, too, and a lot of scholarship and leadership-development programs.”

Fast forward four years, and Zaben is preparing to graduate with not one but two bachelor’s degrees that will aid him in his chosen career field. Private support helped make this achievement possible and enabled Zaben to accomplish a tremendous amount beyond the classroom — with NC State and the wider Raleigh community also benefiting.

‘Think and Do’ More and More

Being a pre-med student is challenging enough, but for Zaben, who wanted to truly maximize his time as an undergraduate at NC State, that was just the starting point.

Zaben chose to double major in biochemistry as well as human biology, pairing a bachelor’s degree in, respectively, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with another in the College of Sciences to make himself even more competitive when it came time to apply to medical school. He is currently a research assistant in a lab, too, giving him additional, hands-on experience.

Zaben’s participation in the Caldwell Fellows Program has also given him career-furthering opportunities. During his first year at NC State, for instance, Zaben learned how that program could not only provide invaluable financial aid but also empower him to pursue a personal dream outside of the classroom.

“When I was a freshman,” Zaben said, “I asked one of my TAs, ‘I’ve heard about NC State’s programs. Is there anything that I should apply to?’ And he said, ‘I think you should apply for the Caldwell Fellows. I think you would be a good fit.’”

The program, named for former NC State chancellor John T. Caldwell, was created in 1990 by combining the NC State Fellows Program and the Caldwell Scholars Program. The new program took the leadership-development focus of the former and the merit-based scholarship support of the latter and added an annual enrichment stipend for even greater effect.

The result: the only universitywide, merit-based award that can be awarded after a student enters NC State. Hence, Zaben’s application to be a Caldwell during his first year on campus.

Students who are accepted into the Caldwell Fellows are among NC State’s most talented and hardworking, needing a minimum overall GPA of 3.25 to qualify, but the program is about much more than just grades. Its driving goal is to “develop the next generation of self-aware, globally minded humans who engage in creative, conscientious leadership.” Volunteerism is an important part of that mission, with Fellows volunteering more than 5,000 hours in total each year.

Zaben, again seeking ways to maximize his efforts, used his enrichment stipend to make the unpaid clinical hours he was working have an even wider impact on the community and, at the same time, build his résumé.

Beyond the Books

Zaben channeled his annual Caldwell stipend toward paying for clinical certification training and completed the course by the end of the fall semester his sophomore year — all of this while also completing Caldwell’s sophomore leadership seminar. He began working in interfacility transport the following spring, being part of ambulance crews taking critically ill patients from one hospital to another.

“It was a good job, and it taught me a lot about bedside skills, being able to talk to patients,” Zaben said. “Sometimes, we would have patient transports all the way up to Virginia. You really have to learn how to get to know the patients, how to keep them comfortable.”

Today, Zaben works for UNC Health Rex as an emergency medical technician, providing special-event EMS coverage at venues such as PNC Arena and Carter-Finley Stadium. Although Zaben might be working while athletics events are happening, that’s not to say that he hasn’t had plenty of fun along the way.

“I get paid while watching the games and getting clinical hours, so it’s pretty cool,” he joked.

Zaben also furthered his medical knowledge and developed a passion for environmental justice by taking part in one of Caldwell’s service-learning teams. Each sophomore Fellow is assigned to one of a few team offerings: for Zaben’s cohort, the choices were working with the Open Door Clinic of Urban Ministries of Wake County, with Habitat for Humanity, or working for environmental justice in the Raleigh area through various projects.

Zaben originally wanted to be part of the clinical team because of its obvious career tie-ins, but his schedule precluded the option. Once he became involved with the environmental justice team, however, he enjoyed getting to help his community in a different way than he had always imagined.

“I quickly realized that there is a lot of overlap,” he said. “These social issues, they overlap with all sorts of different fields, and it’s important that you know and understand that because people within your community are affected by it.”

Not content once that sophomore commitment was done, Zaben returned as a team leader for Caldwell Fellow service-learning the next two years. He even found a way to weave environmental justice into his medical trajectory by conducting research in environmental toxicology and in epigenetics, the latter being the study of how behavior and environment can cause changes that affect the way a person’s genes work.

“It first started when I was a junior in high school,” Zaben said of his dream to enter the medical field. “That’s when I started shadowing, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. After shadowing a bunch of different professions, medicine seemed to be the one that I loved most.

“It’s been a developing process throughout college, especially picking up clinical jobs and actually being there on the field and providing care to patients,” Zaben added. “It’s a whole lot different than just standing in the corner shadowing the physician. Learning how to talk to a patient when they’re stressed, learning about how research is critical for the medical field and how that pushes us forward. It’s all changed since I became interested in medicine.”

While studying and working can take up many of the hours in any given week, Zaben has still made giving back to his local mosque, the Islamic Association of Raleigh – Masjid, a priority during his time at NC State. He considers it well worth the extra effort to foster lasting relationships with elementary and middle school students there, as others did with him when he took part in the same youth activities. They discuss their weeks, sometimes host a talk, and then play sports and have snacks. Some days, they may take a field trip.

“One thing I’ve learned about working with kids: You can do something that seems really small, that you might not even think twice about, and it makes their day,” Zaben said. “Not their day; maybe their week.

“Sometimes, after the program, we’ll go grab something to eat on Western Boulevard or Hillsborough Street, and they may not have money to pay for it,” Zaben added. ”You pay for their lunch, and they can’t stop talking about it. It’s the sweetest thing ever. It’s nice knowing that doing something so minor for me, for us adults, that makes them happy and brings them back.”

Zaben recently ran into an older student he had previously led in the youth group. The student eagerly told him about how Zaben, as his counselor, had taught him many lessons that he still remembered and appreciated. The student’s heartfelt “thank you!” reminded Zaben of the long-lasting benefits of his work and reaffirmed his commitment to community involvement.

In another full-circle moment, Zaben was recently on hand to welcome the class of 2027 Caldwell Fellows. The occasion helped him see just how much he has grown over his three years in the program, as well as in his four years as an NC State undergrad.

“I was there for the selection day, and I was facilitating the senior panel,” Zaben said. “It was like I saw myself in those freshmen there — ‘I remember being in your seat!’ It was hard work, but it was all worth it in the end.”

For more information about the Caldwell Fellows program, visit