Pre-Med Honors student offers a crash course in cancer
January 18, 2019

Starting in the fall of 2018, VCU Honors College student and biology major Zuhayr Shaikh has volunteered as a teacher at Open High School. With the goal of one day becoming a physician, Zuhayr hopes to teach high school education after retiring from a career in medicine.

Regarding his future plans, Zuhayr explains, “I feel as though a medical degree would equip me to do much more than just promote health in clinical settings… Eventually, I’d love to be involved with high school education so I can hopefully inspire others during a time that was pretty transformative for me.” Therefore, after talking to a friend about Open High, a “school without walls” located in Oregon Hill and designed with a mission “to develop responsible, creative, independent, college and career ready students… by leading students to pursue challenging academic goals, participate in shared decision-making, and form partnerships with the community,” he applied through the Open Honors Connect program to teach a course he had created, called “Finding Yourself.”

When asked to describe Open Honors Connect, he likens it “to a bridge, promoting the development of two cities of passionate learners.” Under this program, which allows Open High students to personally select courses of interest to them, “VCU Honors students propose and conduct elective classes taught at Open High, and through this process grow to better communicate their passions and reach others.”

During the Spring 2019 semester, Zuhayr will teach another course he created: Cancer Crash Course. In this course, he will draw upon his time working in cancer research, studying cancer biology, and acting as an advocate for those afflicted with cancer. Furthermore, he reveals, he wishes that he had had a clear, understandable “crash-course” to help him after a member of his own family received a cancer diagnosis. “It is my hope,” he reflects, “that by teaching these students, they will in turn be able to use and expand upon their knowledge to stick up for cancer patients.”

In the classroom, Zuhayr starts each session by letting students share about their week and participate in a wake-up activity. Then, he dives into the lesson he has prepared, oftentimes making use of PowerPoints, videos, and other documents. “As I address topics,” he says, “I like to field my students’ [understanding] and get [input] as to what they want to learn by asking them questions.” Finally, he conducts a reflection activity and goes over what will be reviewed the following week.

Although these courses are designed to teach the students, they also serve as a learning experience for Zuhayr. “My experience teaching through Open Honors has definitely deepened my appreciation for my own mentors and instructors. I’ve come to see that sometimes there’s quite a lot of preparation and pressure seen from the other side, and that not always are teachers able to reach students the way that they want to… I’d definitely recommend teaching at Open to other Honors students if they are interested in teaching, learning about teaching, or even just passionate about a specific topic.”

He continues, saying that “one of the most enjoyable parts of my experience at Open has been getting to know and learn from everyone there. The faculty members there are really forward-thinking and encouraging people, and have helped me learn to be more in-sync with the students I teach.”

Moreover, he has enjoyed the opportunity to work with high school students and figure out first-hand the type of teacher he hopes to become. He also appreciates the unique chance to directly impact his students’ lives for the better, helping them to explore new subjects and search for various opportunities to grow professionally.

“My students have diverse interests,” he shares, “and so it felt fulfilling knowing that I was helping all kinds of future professionals take some of their first major career steps. It also wasn’t that long ago that I was in their shoes, and it feels good to have lent a hand where I would have appreciated support.”

Finally, Zuhayr notes, there are ways that VCU students can get involved in education and cancer patient advocacy through 501(c)(3)s. Two organizations he recommends in particular are Learn to Be, which connects “underserved K-12 students across the nation with online volunteer tutors,” and Take the Fight, which prepares college students to serve as cancer patient advocates.

The Honors College applauds Zuhayr’s exceptional efforts to invest in high school education and promote cancer patient advocacy. If you are interested in learning more about Learn to Be and Take the Fight and wish to speak to Zuhayr about these organizations, please contact the Honors College to be put into contact with him. Questions about the Open-Honors Connect program can also be directed to Prof. Mary Boyes, who serves as the faculty advisor for the program, at