Graduating senior feature: Loulia AlBitar, ‘18, Biological Sciences

A missile that ripped into her school was the final impetus for Loulia Al Bitar, ‘18 to leave her native Syria with her mother, Rana, six years ago and settle into Washington Township.

“I had undergone three school closings prior to coming here. I had to move around a lot because of that,” Al Bitar, 22, recalls of her time in capital city Damascus, close to 6,000 miles from South Jersey. “We just at that point decided it was best for me to have a stable education.”

The move was a blessing in disguise. “When I moved here I just felt like it was a different atmosphere to learn,” Al Bitar said. “I was always inspired to learn. Not that the schools there didn’t inspire me, but it was more exciting to learn, to go to school here.”

She became interested in Rowan University early on. “What initially sparked my interest in Rowan was during my tour of the school I was able to see how close the tour guides were and how much of a tight-knit environment the school fostered,” she says. “I also loved the fact that it had small class sizes and was near my home.”

At Rowan, she graduated with a degree in biological sciences, minoring in psychology and was part of the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration. She started conducting research in her freshman year with professor Dr. Luke Holbrook, using Avizo, a program that analyzes data from CT scans, to look at structural differences in fossils, such as tooth surface complexity, to trace their evolutionary history.

“I have been fortunate to have her to support my research,” notes Holbrook, who called her reliable and capable of group and independent work.

She decided on her future career thanks to a friend who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate and underwent a dozen surgeries and thanks to the dentist who treated her friend. “I went with her to see her dentist. Her dentist had a photo of her when she was little and was following up with her. I realized how close of a relationship they had because of the impact this had on her life,” Al Bitar says. “That just made me want to explore it, and I was able to do just that at Rowan. I thought I was given all the tools, every opportunity I could to explore that.”

Al Bitar, who works part time in a dental office, dedicated time outside of the classroom and lab to serving others. She was secretary of the Biology Club and founder and president of the Rowan American Student Dental Association Pre-Dental Chapter. And she was founder and president of the Rowan chapter of Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide surgeries for children with cleft lips and palates in developing countries.

“This was an organization I started exploring after talking with my friend about her experiences with a cleft lip and cleft palate,” says Al Bitar, who grew Operation Smile from three to 35 plus members from her sophomore to senior year. “It really inspired me to want to work toward raising awareness about this.”

She also maintains connections to her homeland, where her father, grandmothers and some uncles still live. She has returned to the region to visit family and to help others, including volunteering for the Saeed Society, organizing fundraisers for Syrian children and returning to Damascus her sophomore year to teach them English.

“I had to see strife at a younger age. Seeing that firsthand made me so determined that I wanted to outweigh all that hate and ugliness with love and giving and making a positive impact,” says Al Bitar.

“Some of my fondest memories (at Rowan) will always be the close relationships I was able to develop with my peers, peer-leaders, and school faculty throughout my time here,” Al Bitar says. “Students here are always willing to help one another and have study meetings. The leaders in the extracurricular activities I was involved in always maintained a fun environment to work and collaborate in.

“And the faculty at this school never fail in showing their passions for their fields and being fully supportive to every student on campus. The cohesive and strong bond between every individual in this school is a memory I will always hold on to.”

Al Bitar plans to apply to dental school in the summer. “What made me realize that this field is what will fulfill my heart by giving me joy . . . is that I am able to use my creativity and love for science to be of help to people.”

“I’ll be happy with whatever opportunity I’m given,” says Al Bitar, who is the first woman in her family to earn a college degree and will be the first dentist in her family. “I would love to specialize in maybe pediatrics or orthodontics, but I’m open to exploring other fields or even general dentistry as well.”

“I love this school. One day I would love to be able to maybe contribute to starting a dental school here,” she says. “The school gave me everything.”