The first time Mousa Abuissa saw the University of Iowa campus, he was on a vacation with his parents and sister, who had traveled from Syria to visit his uncle in Iowa City. At the end of the trip, Abuissa’s parents asked him if he wanted to stay. His answer, he recalls, was an emphatic “Yes.”
“Sometimes my spontaneous nature gets me in trouble, but this time, I think it led me to something very special,” says Abuissa.
This was back in 2009, and Abuissa was a second-year student studying music and economics at the University of Damascus. But once he made the decision to tear up his return ticket, he was focused on making his new academic home at the UI.
Abuissa will receive his Doctor of Pharmacy degree Thursday, May 11, and is one of nearly 5,000 UI students who will graduate during commencement ceremonies at the end of the spring semester.
At first, Abuissa, whose knowledge of life on an American campus came almost entirely from films and TV, was overwhelmed by the reality of lecture halls and residence-hall living. The first time he attended a lecture, the professor spoke so quickly that Abuissa couldn’t keep up. When he eventually moved from his uncle’s house into a residence hall, he was disappointed to learn he had to do his own laundry.
“In Syria, students live with their parents and the parents do all the work, all the cooking and laundry,” says Abuissa. “I wasn’t used to doing these things for myself.”
Abuissa spent about a year improving his English (he had to take the TOEFL exam to complete his UI application), catching up on science courses, and working with UI staff to transfer credits from Syria. Already an accomplished cellist, he started taking lessons with Anthony Arnone, associate professor of cello at the UI, and began performing with the UI Symphony Orchestra.
“The first time I met Mousa, he came to my home with his uncle,” says Arnone. “His future seemed very uncertain, but I could tell that he loved the cello, and I told him I would love to teach him.”
As his circle of friends and his facility with English grew, Abuissa says he started to feel more confident about life in the U.S.
“At the School of Music, they are used to international students and people with international profiles. It was a welcoming place for me,” he says.
Abuissa officially enrolled in the university in 2010 and immediately plunged into his studies. Over the next three years, he managed to complete a bachelor’s degree in music and all of the required pre-pharmacy coursework. At the same time, he was performing regularly with the orchestra, participating in Global Buddies, a student group that connects international students, and working as a pharmacy technician in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“There is no balancing,” says Abuissa, when asked how he manages so many activities plus school work. “You just have to do a lot of work.”
His dedication paid off and, in 2013, Abuissa was accepted into the College of Pharmacy’s Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program. During his four years in the college, Abuissa continued working as a pharmacy technician in Cedar Rapids, volunteered with several student groups, and gained experience as a lab research assistant. He contributed to a study that examined noninvasive ways to measure skin inflammation. The research, which was later published in Scientific Reports, was led by Nicole Brogden, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences and experimental therapeutics.
Brogden recalls Abuissa as a student who stood out—he was the only student from a distant, war-torn country, the only student who didn’t get to see his parents regularly, and the only student with whom she could talk at length about classical music. Brogden came close to pursuing a music degree herself and says that Abuissa sent her emails with links to YouTube videos of classical music performances and invited her to UI Symphony Orchestra concerts.
“I could understand him as a musician, and so that was something that we talked a lot about,” says Brogden. “We don’t have many students with music degrees in the College of Pharmacy, and so the fact that he did both music and pharmacy says a lot about his determination and ambition.”
Abuissa also continued to perform with the orchestra—sometimes rescheduling pharmacy exams so he could make rehearsals, and practicing at home with headphones and a high-quality recording when he couldn’t.
William LaRue Jones, professor and director of orchestral studies and conductor of the UI’s Symphony Orchestra, calls Abuissa exceptional.
“Mousa has been a very active and very strong addition to our cello section,” Jones says. “Since his very early childhood, he played the cello, and he didn’t want to lose access to music. I think it’s important for a university to provide this access.”
Music, Abuissa says, helped prop him up and keep him going, even after his homeland was consumed by a violent civil war.
In the nearly eight years since he came to Iowa, Abuissa has been able to return home only twice—in 2015 and 2016. During the second trip, Abuissa says he experienced the effects of war firsthand: He heard bombs exploding in the suburb adjacent to his family’s, and was saddened to see local buildings and streets in ruin.
“When bombs are exploding outside and there are people who are homeless because they’ve lost everything, it’s something very shocking to witness,” he says. “You can’t un-see those scenes.”
Abuissa’s parents still live in the same home in which he grew up, and so far, their neighborhood remains intact, he says. However, the threat of danger and destruction lingers. Abuissa’s sister, Natalie, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business from the UI this weekend, has been in the U.S. since 2014, and both she and Mousa are U.S. citizens.
Abuissa’s father travelled to Iowa from Syria in late April to attend his children’s graduation ceremonies, but his mother stayed in Damascus to watch over the family home.
“Of course she would like to be here,” says Abuissa. “But she always tells me not to worry because she goes to sleep happy knowing that my sister and I are safe.”
Looking forward, Abuissa’s immediate plan is to find a job in the pharmacy industry, either in Chicago or San Francisco. He says that after eight years in the relative calm of Iowa City, he’s ready to live in a big city—a city more like Damascus, which before the war was a vibrant and exciting metropolis.
However, he’s not ruling out a return to Iowa City. His uncle still lives locally, and Abuissa is contemplating a pharmacy residency. But wherever his career may lead him, Abuissa says he never will forget the people at the UI who helped put him on the right track.
“For a long time, I felt like I was driving without headlights, just hoping that I could make it to a place that I couldn’t even see,” he says. “But I had good people helping me all along the way.”