China to Columbia- An idealistic journey

Torn between her heart and her brain, Michelle tries to find her way

Casually dressed in a black t-shirt and black shorts, Yuxiao Gao, sips her bubble tea and eats her sushi, all the while furiously typing up her latest story. A long sheet of jet black hair frames her perpetually smiling face.

Wrapping up her work, the 23-year-old laughs as she explains how the constant mispronunciation of ‘Yuxiao’ as ‘Michelle’ convinced her to adopt that as her first name in the United States.

Gao is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School in New York because she is interested in people and their stories. Although she has lived in the United States for more than five years, she considers herself to be typically Chinese and misses her hometown, Beijing, immensely.

Born in the coastal region of China, Gao moved to Beijing when she was two years old. After her parent’s divorce, she shuttled between the northeast region of Beijing and the southwest region, spending her weekdays with her mother and weekends with her father. Torn between her parents, she constantly worried that she would hurt one by spending too much time with the other.

Not only was her parent’s divorce hard on her, but it also changed her ideas regarding marriage. “I felt that marriage can really change you and bring you down. I was extremely angry and heartbroken.” But she says being a naturally open and expressive person means she was always willing to discuss her fears and that helped her in the long run. “Their divorce really toughened me up. It made me a stronger and more compassionate person.”

After her father’s remarriage, she had to adjust to living with a new family. “Although, I don’t always get along with my stepmom and stepsister, we have grown into a family now. We support one another and love each other.”

Her strength gave her the courage to move to the United States alone at the age of 18. She pursued her bachelor’s degree in sociology and business at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Studying business, she met the woman who serves as her greatest inspiration, Colleen Burke. “Colleen taught us business strategy. She was one of the first females to study at the Harvard Business School. She’s so smart and humble. She has had a great impact on my life.”

As a junior, Gao chose to study abroad at the University College London. “I travelled across England all by myself. I was a little lonely at times, but somewhere I wanted to be alone. On the brink of depression, I really found myself.”

After graduating from Skidmore, she worked as a marketing assistant at a wine auction house in Jersey City. In that year, she realized her love for writing and telling stories. But choosing between business and journalism seemed like choosing between being realistic and being idealistic.

“I am familiar with business, I have studied business and I am good at it,” Gao said, “It would be a very practical decision. But journalism, on the other hand, is completely new territory for me. I needed that gap year to figure out what I wanted to do. I spent the year working, wandering and thinking.”.

Unable to choose, she decided to leave the decision to fate by applying to both journalism schools and business schools across the United States. Her acceptance to the Columbia Journalism School sealed the deal. She packed her bags and moved to New York City for yet another adventure.

“When I read the offer letter, I teared up and thought I can’t miss this. I have to go and try. I have to take this chance.”

Despite Gao’s misgivings about making such a big change in her life, she’s settling down in New York City. Whenever she feels lonely, she heads over to Chinatown in Queens to get her fix of authentic Beijing noodles. Then she gets into her dinosaur pajamas, hugs her purple teddy bear and tries to forget all her troubles.

Although she says she is still confused and lost at times, she’s determined to plough on and persevere in the journalism field. “I just want to learn for now. I want to tell stories which I feel people should hear. I want to be idealistic and I want to follow my heart.”

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