Nicole Koulisis had a favorite next-door neighbor when she was a child. He was like a grandfather to her, and she loved him. But when she was 12, after four years of friendship, he died.

“That death took a lot out of me,” she says, adding that, soon after, her grandmother, an uncle, and a cousin also died. “Now,” she says, “I have a passion to heal people. I feel that becoming a doctor is a way for me to give back and help people in the future. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for so long.”

Last year, the 21-year-old senior spent six months at the Hospital la Paz, Madrid’s largest hospital, where she interned with the Chief of Trauma and Orthopedic Surgery. There she worked in the operating room, where she witnessed several operations, including cataract surgery, an eye lift, and a hip replacement. She also visited with patients, examined x-rays, and consulted with doctors.

Also, for four years, she worked at the Worcester Medical Center, where she interned in the busy emergency room, trained volunteers, transported blood specimens to various labs, and translated for the doctors the needs of Greek and Spanish patients. She also worked at Biomedical Research Models Inc. in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she conducted diabetes research.

“My goal is to become an exceptional physician,” says Koulisis, who is an emergency medical technician on campus. “I love emergency room medicine. It’s invigorating. You’re always on your feet, meeting people’s needs.”

Koulisis also volunteers at the CASPAR Homeless Shelter, and worked at the National Braille Press on the production of a book for blind children.

“I wouldn’t be at MIT if it were not for others,” says Koulisis, who is a Haskell and Ina Gordon Scholar. “Money was a problem growing up. My mother raised us on her own. She told my sister and me that education is not only a key to success, but also is a key to freedom and an opportunity to explore who you are. She said, be a good person and give back.”

Koulisis says that if it weren’t for the scholarship, “I would be studying at a state school. Instead, I am at MIT— the hub of the intellectual world. There’s a spirit that’s awake and alive on campus, and I am part of it.

“MIT welcomes people with dreams, and by offering financial help, allows them to make their dreams come true. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not astounded that I’m here. Being at MIT has taught me that every moment is a moment to give back to the world.”