A Life-Changing Journey

Lois Yu '93, MS '95

Lois YuFor Lois Yu '93, MS '95 the journey of self-discovery is a story that started decades before she was born.

Her parents immigrated to the U.S. in their late 20s and got married. Because they spoke less than perfect English, they spoke Mandarin at home. As a result, Lois's sister spoke Mandarin fluently when she started school, but her English was poor. After her teacher shamed Lois' sister and parents for her lack of English fluency, the family spoke only English at home and focused on integrating into American culture. Because Lois was only one year old at the time, she did not grow up speaking Mandarin or knowing much about her Chinese roots. Lois knew that her family ties in China were important enough for her parents to send money regularly, but she knew little else—until a college research project changed everything.

What started as an undergraduate research thesis became a multi-chapter epic. Curious about her Chinese heritage, she studied abroad for a year in Taiwan, learned Mandarin and, in 1992, applied for and received a $1,000 undergraduate summer research fellowship. The award allowed her to travel to China to study the social and political history of the Chinese revolution through the lens of her paternal grandfather.

In conducting interviews and searching archives, she discovered the broad scope of her grandfather's story. Born to a lower status second wife, he left his impoverished rural home as a boy and was raised by his older brother before being recruited into the Chinese Communist Party as a young worker. He eventually became a party leader, but infighting and civil war forced him to flee China for Russia. He returned to China four years later and raised a large family in the midst of nonstop wars—the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, as well as the Chinese Civil War. The family barely escaped the massacre of Nanjing, suffered the loss of their home twice in air raids over Chongqing, and more. He supported the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, but because he had defected to the rival party for a time, the party questioned his loyaty. He died a political prisoner in 1956, survived by his wife and many children. The family lived under a cloud until 1984, when the government acknowledged the injustice that had taken place and acknowledged his contributions as a young labor leader.

In the course of gathering data about her grandfather that summer, Lois discovered a family secret. Armed with a few names and relentless persistence, Lois located her grandfather's rumored "second wife" in a nursing home in Shanghai. Upon finding out Lois was seeking information about her grandfather, she declared that man was a traitor and had Lois thrown out of the facility. This woman, an elderly, high-ranking Communist official, was in fact Lois' grandmother. Lois' father, who was raised believing he was the younger of twin sons, was in fact his father's oldest son. Lois also learned her father had a full biological older sister who had been abandoned in a Moscow orphanage. With no leads—not even a name—it seemed impossible that Lois would ever find her aunt. But decades later, she did: In 2017, after nearly 90 years, Lois' father and his long-lost sister were overjoyed when they met for the first time.

"My thesis project has always been close to my heart. It was a deeply meaningful experience," Lois says. "I wanted to figure out what it means to be Chinese, but I found so much more. I discovered a personal story that connected my life to history, and because of that, I am still grappling with ideas about family, forgiveness, shame and identity."

Having a parallel interest in math, Lois had the good fortune to also conduct research in geophysics as part of a independent study course, which led to a graduate degree in the field. Both undergraduate research projects were life-changing for her. Today as the volunteer chair of Division of Physicial Sciences Dean's Leadership Council (DLC), Lois is in a position to support giving young scholars access to hands-on opportunities like she had. Through the division's Student Success Center, the DLC supports finding and matching students to internships in industry and entrepreneurial settings, and raising funds for the division's undergraduate summer research fellowships, a ten-week full-time research immersion experience, each of which costs $7,500.

"We want every student to have the opportunity to experience hands-on learning. A lot of kids graduate without those experiences and that's a real loss. Working an internship or conducting indepent research in college can be a life-altering, relatively risk-free way to explore and inform your future. There is no convenient structure to do that kind of thing later in life."

For Lois, the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic have also exposed inequalities in access for underrepresented science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. Although she has seen significant progress in terms of diversity in STEM fields, there is still more work to do. Lois believes that increasing access to mentorship and internship opportunities will help students build networks and connections that empower their careers. Lois mentors several students and has made a $200,000 planned gift to enable in perpetuity a future math or science undergraduate to spend the summer exploring ideas of interest to them.

"I want to leave a legacy," Lois says. "I've been able to reflect on which experiences have shaped my life and led me to where I am. Now, I want to give back and help young people have those defining experiences too."