Embracing the Entire Experience: Sima Habrawi, D.D.S. ‘24

sima habrawi in front of the ucla school of dentistry
Dr. Sima Habrawi poses with her Omicron Kappa Upsilon National Dental Honor Society medal, one of numerous honors she achieved as a UCLA School of Dentistry student.
June 12, 2024

Sima Habrawi, D.D.S. ’24, spent just over two years at the UCLA School of Dentistry, but more than left her mark on our community during those 25 months. Arriving in May 2022 as a member of the Professional Program for International Dentists – a rigorous two-year curriculum for foreign-trained professionals to obtain certification to practice in the U.S. – marked Dr. Habrawi’s fourth international relocation in the past decade.

On top of the accelerated academic program, and acclimating to a new country, Dr. Habrawi prioritized community engagement, both in Westwood and across Southern California. She joined several Associated Student Body-affiliated clubs including UCLA's Student Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, was a member of the 2023 Board of Counselors’ Leadership Institute (BOCLI) cohort, and served as a student liaison for the Integrative Mind-Body Wellness Initiative (IMBWI) that focuses on the importance of mental health among dental students.

Among many hours volunteering at pop-up community clinics, school screenings and various volunteering initiatives, last summer Dr. Habrawi and fellow SOD students administered screenings in the Dodger Stadium parking lot as part of the organization’s Dreamteam Playerfest.

Graduating magna cum laude, Dr. Habrawi was justly rewarded with numerous scholastic honors including the 2024 ADEA Dr. Jeanne Craig Sinkford Student Leadership Award, Dental Foundation of California Endowed Scholarship for Leadership and Academic Excellence, the BOCLI scholar award, and accolades from the School’s Sections of Interdisciplinary Dentistry, Periodontics, and Prosthodontics. The sum total of her academic and extracurricular accomplishments made Dr. Habrawi a natural choice as one of 12 Bruin graduates selected for the Omicron Kappa Upsilon National Dental Honor Society, equivalent to Phi Beta Kappa in other disciplines.

As she enters private practice in Corpus Cristi, Texas, we sat down with Dr. Habrawi for some reflections on her brief, but meaningful, time in Westwood.

UCLA School of Dentistry (SOD):  Talk about your personal journey, from Syria to the United Arab Emirates and UCLA...

Dr. Sima Habrawi (SH): I am originally Syrian, born and raised in one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world called Aleppo. Unfortunately, I had to leave my beloved country due to war in 2012 and move to Cairo first then Dubai.  I actually had to do each year of high school in a different country!

I finished high school in Dubai and joined the University of Sharjah to study Dentistry. After graduation, I did one year of general practice internship at the University Dental Hospital in Sharjah. During that time and while practicing dentistry during COVID, I used to work by day and apply to [U.S. dental] schools by night. It all seemed impossible until it wasn't!

I still remember receiving the acceptance email from UCLA and reading it five times until it actually hit me that I got into my dream school!

Although I might seem scattered on the map, my journey gave me the grit, stamina, and resilience that shaped who I am today. 

SOD: As a member of the PPID cohort, what motivated you to take on so many extracurricular activities beyond the accelerated curriculum?

SH: The program is very demanding physically, academically, and mentally. Despite holding a dental degree and being a dentist in the UAE, going back to dental school in the other side of the world was a huge challenge!  Dental school is tough in general, so imagine doing it all again, but in half the time!

However, I have always been very active in extracurricular activities and leadership roles, even in my first dental school. What truly motivates me to do so, is one of my core values: To be remembered for positive impact, whether it is every person I met, every project I do, and every place I become a part of.

SOD: Talk about how you mobilized the SOD community for a multi-lingual, Instagram-based autism awareness campaign last year.

SH: Autism advocacy has a very special place in my heart, because my nephew is on the spectrum. Seeing the challenges he has to face on daily basis and how much lack of awareness there is worldwide was shocking! It is because of him I took a vow to raise awareness about a disorder that affects not only my family but one in every 35 people in the US.

Organizing the campaign was actually based off a smaller project I led in the UAE. In 2021, I was the head of a scientific committee of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry in the UAE. COVID at that time was still restricting in-person events. So I thought, if COVID was able to turn education online, why can't we do the same thing with awareness? According to global digital insights, the “typical” internet user spends almost 2.5 hours each day using social media platforms.

The first campaign in UAE had facts written in Arabic, English, and Urdu, extended over four weeks, and gained the engagement of 1,000 people. Which was a huge milestone; and the concept of social media awareness campaigns was born.

As April 2023 (Autism Awareness Month) was approaching while I was the director of research in UCLA's Student Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, I knew I had to raise the bar and break my personal record! I started looking for volunteers and put my action plan together. I learned from the mistakes in the first campaign, like engaging volunteers more by recording the facts that they are saying, optimizing the posting time and digital links, and filming more virtual interviews. It took months of planning and preparation, but the end result was exceptional!

I am extremely proud to say that UCLA was the pioneer in leading the USA's first bilingual autism awareness campaign through Instagram. The campaign's success was phenomenal, engaging over 30K people in a month and gaining over 90K views. The campaign was also recognized by the AAPD. I will always remember this campaign as one of the most influential projects I led in my career.

SOD: Of all the awards, scholarships, and other recognition during your time at UCLA, which are you most proud of?

SH: It is hard to pick a favorite because each holds a special place in my heart and a special memory. However, I do believe that all the recognition, awards, and scholarships led to the summit of being selected by UCLA's faculty for the national honor society Omicron Kappa Upsilon - OKU. This is one of the highest attainable honors for dental students. That is an achievement that I will always be proud of, as it represents the culmination of years of hard work.

SOD: Talk about the U.S. dental student experience vs. earning your degree abroad? What are the similarities? What are some differences?

SH: The beauty of dental medicine is that the basic knowledge that every dentist needs is the same wherever you go. I do have to acknowledge that my first dental school equipped me with exceptionally strong medical knowledge and skill, otherwise I wouldn't have made it to UCLA (the world's #6 dental school)!  What really differs is how many more opportunities are available in U.S. dental schools for volunteering, leadership, and refining knowledge and skills.

SOD: As you embark on private practice in Texas, what are a few of your favorite memories from your two years at the UCLA School of Dentistry?

SH: Many happy memories flash back as I remember those two years. I spent more time at UCLA those two years than I did anywhere else in LA! SOD was truly home. One of the things I will miss the most about it, is the PPID family I gained.

However if I had to pick one favorite memory, it would be taking my PPID cohort to try authentic Syrian shawerma, which they all loved and some even became regular customers!

SOD: How do you plan to continue being an advocate for community oral health as a professional?

SH: Raising awareness and advocating for general health and well-being is a lifelong mission when you are a healthcare provider. However, transitioning from an educational environment to private practice is challenging in terms of accessibility to community service opportunities. My plan is to continue dedicating time to raising awareness about oral health and its impact and relationship to general health and various disorders, preventative dentistry, and of course Autism Spectrum Disorder, getting involved in schools and local communities in Corpus Christi. I will stay connected with UCLA SOD and help wherever I can!