Meet Yumi Engelking

Date: Thursday, August 4, 2022

Yumi EngelkingHometown: Chaozhou, China 

Yumeng (“Yumi”) Engelking grew up in Chaozhou, a small city in southeast China.  

“A lot of the people there don’t have educational resources, so they go out to work after high school,” Engelking says. “Neither of my parents went to college. A lot of people make a living from selling drugs in that area.” 

Engelking’s father died from an overdose incident when she was 3 years old, and her mother supported her and her sister as a single parent. Her father’s death was a profound change for her family, and Engelking emphasizes that it was made harder by the fear of judgment that her family felt. 

“My mom always talked about my father, but she never talked about it in front of other people. Having addiction has a very strong social stigma attached to it, so it almost became a taboo,” she says. “We couldn’t even give my father a proper funeral, because it was so stigmatized in the area. But I want to say that regardless of what kind of illness we struggle with, it’s still a disease. There’s no status in disease.” 

At the age of 11, Engelking’s life changed again when she developed a disorder that caused significant hair loss. 

“Because my mom was working multiple jobs to support my family, we never looked for any medical treatment,” Engelking says. “For a family with very limited resources, if a condition isn’t life-threatening, it isn’t a priority.” 

Though the illness wasn’t life threatening, it was detrimental to her self-image, and that experience has shaped the way she views specialty care in medicine. 

“Regardless of our ability to pay for it, we all have the right to live in a way that we feel beautiful, powerful, and capable,” Engelking says. “It hurts to think that people would avoid going to see a doctor because their Medicaid or Medicare won’t cover specialty care, even though they really need it. That’s one thing I want to focus on in my career.” 

Both her childhood illness and losing her father to a substance use disorder got her interested in human biology, the brain, and “what makes us do what we do,” she says. 

A second home 

Engelking moved to the United States at age 20 and earned an associate degree at a community college in Washington. Her family wasn’t able to help support her tuition, so she had to work as much as possible to save the money she needed to take the next step in her education. 

“No one in my family had ever gone to college. They are supportive emotionally, but they can’t really give any advice,” she says. “I had to figure out a lot by myself.” 

She juggled multiple jobs while in Washington to maintain her immigration status, which allowed her to gain a range of health care experience. She then moved to Iowa to attend Cornell College and earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2020. She also completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in behavior and neuroscience. 

For the last two years, Engelking has worked at Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids through AmeriCorps. 

“I absolutely love the connections I am able to make with the homeless populations I work with,” Engelking says. “I hope to continue to work with them after I start medical school, and hopefully I can provide basic medical care and education.” 

She wants to continue to serve patients like those at Willis Dady and in her hometown, with a special emphasis on illnesses that require specialty care that is hard to access for lower income people. She is grateful for the opportunity to attend medical school so she can learn to help underserved populations. 

“For kids in circumstances like me, many of them do not have the fortune and the resources to go this far,” Engelking says. “Working hard played a role in how I got here, but mostly I attribute it to luck and to the people and community who supported me—my professors, my husband, my friends, my mentors, and the generous scholarships I received.” 

Engelking has built deep connections with the local community since coming to Iowa for college. She hopes to practice in Iowa after she completes her medical training. 

“China is my first home, the place where I was born and raised, but Iowa is my second home. It’s almost like a ‘reborn’ experience for me, and the place where I will build a family,” she says. “My husband and I love traveling, and at the end of the day, we always compare each different place to Iowa. We always reach the conclusion that Iowa is the best.”