Color My World: Wellesley's Yang Qiu Brings Hope Home to China

Oct. 24, 2007
Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass.— When Yang Qiu was chosen for an internship in rural China last summer, it meant a return to her native land. A senior at Wellesley College who aims for a career in public health, she worked on medical problems plaguing China’s rural poor.

Rende Sha and Yang Qiu
Yang Qiu, right, meets Rende Sha, who has been blind since age 4, during her internship in China

Yang’s visit was made possible by Wellesley’s Elisabeth Luce Moore '24 Summer Internships in Asia Program and ORBIS International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to blindness prevention and treatment in developing countries. On a three-week research trip through northwestern Yunnan, one of China’s poorest and most remote provinces, Yang met a 16-year-old blind girl who would change her life—and whose life she hopes to change. Since age 4, Rende Sha has had corneal ulcers in both eyes, destroying her sight.

“Due to lack of healthcare awareness 12 years ago and lack of financial resources now, Rende still stays home and spends her day in darkness,” Yang said.

Not forgotten: Yang was immediately impressed with Rende, who has triumphed over life in many ways. She can navigate her environment with ease, is well spoken and maintains a sterling appearance, despite her poverty. She has taught herself how to speak China’s main language, Mandarin, by listening to radio and television. (Rende is of Yi ethnic minority and her native language is also called Yi.)

The trip has given Rende reason to believe that help is on the way. Her words still ring in Yang’s memory as she recalls Rende’s quiet whisper to her: “Maybe not cured yet, but not forgotten.”

“At that moment, I made a promise to myself,” Yang said. “I will do anything I can to give Rende a new life full of colors.” That goal has involved piecing together a rescue plan.

Health challenges: “Health care is a complicated story in China,” Yang said. “There are nomadic populations that live at high plateaus; there are ethnic minorities living in remote mountains; there are poor populations living in the slums of the city. How to make the health care system and resources accessible is a big challenge.”

While China has a new healthcare network and help from organizations such as ORBIS, it is a struggle to provide medical care for the general public. The answer, Yang feels, is cooperation between the Chinese government, international and local agencies and volunteers from the healthcare industry to help pay for needed medical procedures, such as operating on Rende.

And it is possible. Yang saw one particular success story during her internship involving a 70-year-old Chinese man who had lost his eyesight a decade earlier.

Yang Qiu “Health care is a complicated story in China,” Yang said. “There are nomadic populations that live at high plateaus; there are ethnic minorities living in remote mountains; there are poor populations living in the slums of the city. How to make the health care system and resources accessible is a big challenge.”

“After receiving free cataract surgery, he was able to see at last his grandson who had grown so much over the last 10 years,” Yang said.

Now back in the U.S. and attending classes at Wellesley, Yang continues to work to get similar help for Rende.

“I took a picture of her eyes to show to ophthalmologists I know,” said Yang, who is the daughter of two doctors. “They told me it’s a corneal ulcer. We don’t know if anything can be done yet for her or if the problem is permanent. She did have a reaction to light, so that’s a good sign.”

Rende’s parents are too poor to pay for medical care or travel, Yang said, so she hopes to arrange for a provincial hospital to send a specialist to Rende’s village to examine her.

“I will work with ORBIS to try to put her on the list for a corneal transplant,” said Yang. Amazingly, Yang may also have found a financial donor, a California philanthropist she met while still in China, who is willing to contribute to the operation.

“(Rende) has her whole life in front of her,” she said. “I want to do something to help her make that life colorful.”

Yang’s skills at helping and her dedication are considerable, according to one professor. “Her project is fascinating and worthwhile,” wrote Philip Kohl, Wellesley College professor of anthropology, in recommending her for a fellowship to further her studies in medicine. “She’s the person who can pull it off. She’ll bring all her creative intellectual energy and strikingly impressive social skills to this project.”

Homeland roots : Yang herself grew up in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in the People’s Republic of China, until age 14, when she came to America. She and her mother live in Bellevue, Wash., where she attended high school before coming to Wellesley College in 2004. She will graduate this spring, majoring in anthropology and biology.

“I want to go into public health and contribute to global healthcare,” Yang said. “I’m very interested in medicine. I’ve always been asking myself a lot of questions, such as how are people cured, which varies so much from culture to culture.”

With her physician parents, she grew up immersed in Western medicine. “But when I was growing up, I had to drink all the herbal medicines from traditional Chinese medicine,” she laughed. Among her goals is to study how traditional and nontraditional medicine can work together.

Giving back: At Wellesley, she serves as a mentor for an inner-city outreach program for science education for children in grades 5 and 6.

“She is one of the most enthusiastic and consistent members of the Biological Sciences Outreach program that I coordinate,” said Janet McDonough, instructor in science laboratory at Wellesley. “She is contagiously enthusiastic about sharing her amazing knowledge with others in fun ways.”

Yang also volunteers at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and with Heart to Heart International, a U.S. agency that takes her on regular medical trips to China, where she has acted as an interpreter, among other jobs. At Wellesley, she has served as vice president of College Government since 2006, is the chair of the Student Organizations and Appointments Committee and the assistant to the college’s Wang Campus Center manager.

“For all the help I have received along my life journey, I want to give back by providing service that can help the wider community,” said Yang. “As Mother Teresa once said, ‘We can do no great things; only small things with great love.’”

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.