Li Yu

Interview by Genesis Whitlock

*Trigger Warning: mental illness and suicide*

// Tell me about your childhood growing up.

I was born in Beijing, China. At about six years old –– the Chinese Cultural Revolution began. The boarding school I attended [at the time] closed. I was happy because I thought I could go to public school. [I wanted to] be with my parents, but when I returned home -- my father had been sent to a labor camp. Soon after, my mother was also sent to a labor camp.


// How did the family separation impact you as a young girl?

I couldn’t bear to be without my mother and father. I begged to go with them. My father said no because I wouldn’t have had any access to education in the labor camp. I stayed in Beijing with my 11-year-old sister in order to attend school, but I was bullied because both of my parents were in labor camps. Throughout my years at elementary and middle schools, I suffered from severe depression, an eating disorder, and [a] sleep disorder. [I] attempted suicide because I didn’t feel like I had control over my life. In addition to the family separation, all of the universities were shut down because all of the professors were sent to labor camps. I had no clue what my life would be like after high school. After graduation, the default was to be sent to a farm or a labor camp –– I felt hopeless.


// What was it like growing up as a woman in Warangal?

The culture was nice. My friends and cousins lived together harmoniously. I didn’t enjoy being a woman for too long because child marriage does occur. I was forced into getting married when I was too young. When girls become women, they are usually subjected to getting married in my society.


// How did you cope?

I had a few very close friends and played music in our school band. Both strong friendship[s] and my music teachers helped me through those very difficult times.


// Looking back, how do you feel about your father’s decision and the importance of education?

I’m now able to realize how valuable education is and understand why he made this decision. Every day I am thankful and acknowledge that I was very fortunate to be able to survive and persevere. I cannot emphasize enough how important education was to me growing up.


// What positive results came from putting your focus toward education?

Fast forward to 1976, when I was just starting in high school. The Chinese Cultural Revolution ended and the universities finally reopened. I felt hope and light at the end of the tunnel. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and was accepted into a top university, Beijing Medical University, where the enrollment rate was 1% to 2% for high school graduates in 1979.


// Can you tell me about your career and why you chose cancer drug research?

My life was saved by a doctor, so I knew that I would use my second chance to make a positive impact on others. Cancer is a devastating disease that has affected members of my family. Although it was uncommon at the time, I chose to study it.


// What does empowerment mean to you and can you tell me about a time you’ve empowered yourself?

Let’s look at the definition of empowerment. It’s an opportunity to have power and to be able to use that power to choose who you are and what you want to pursue. Once I graduated from college, I decided that a Bachelor’s degree was not enough, so I chose to come to the U.S. to advance my career. I wrote to a professor at the University of Missouri to tell him how interested I was in his work and how passionate I was about cancer research. I didn’t know him and I had no connections, but he wrote back! He offered me a scholarship to attend his graduate school. I felt empowered that I was able to provide myself with my own opportunities.


// Were there any difficulties throughout your journey to the U.S?

I was unable to pay for my ticket to the U.S. My parents borrowed enough money from our community to pay for my one-way ticket to the U.S and $200 cash, which was about my mother’s annual salary. I did not speak good English, but I knew that I had a chance to make an impact.


// What’s your advice to young girls who are pushing boundaries?

First, define your dream. If you have a true dream big and attractive enough, you will get the courage and energy to pursue the dream. Always advocate for yourself. Don’t rely on anyone else, because you can’t let anyone choose your passion for you, or take your opportunity away from you. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to be courageous, like leaving China to live in a foreign country. It’s about being able to get out of your comfort zone, stepping out of the fear, and stepping into a new horizon. Find mentors who [are] experienced and willing to provide guidance. Find other people who are as passionate as you are so you can support and care for each other. - GGH


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