Graduation from the School of Dental Medicine at Case Western Reserve University on Sunday, May 17, is going to be a big family reunion for Yuan Tao, who has lived thousands of miles apart from her husband in California and four-year old daughter in China over the past four years.
When Yuan Tao accompanied her husband Rong Xu to the United States in 2001, she had no idea how life would change for her. He was pursuing his doctorate in computer science from Purdue University.
Arriving from Naijing, China, with a background and bachelor's degree in international business, Tao found out she would have to do another undergraduate degree in the United States if she switched areas for graduate school.
Tao tried accounting. Although she was good at numbers, "I was bored," she said, adding she enjoys working with people more than numbers.
So Tao switched to pharmacology and started over in a bachelor's program, but before she earned the degree she applied to dental school and was accepted by Case Western Reserve University in 2005. Meanwhile her husband Rong was hired by Hewlett Packard to work in California.
They had hoped to find a job and school in the same location or nearby, but it didn't work out that way, says Tao. The two decided to make a commuter marriage work.
When Tao came to Cleveland, she did not arrive alone. Her two-month old daughter and Rong's parents, visiting from China, accompanied her.
"The first year of dental school is very hard," Tao says.
She was in class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and struggled at times with the language. She taped lectures and prepared for class by reading ahead and then rereading after class to make sure she understood the medical science.
Meanwhile she was having some sleepless nights caring for her daughter.
Some of it was eased by help from her in-laws. But in the middle of the first year, their visitor visas expired, and they decided to return to China. With the school situation for Yuan and new work for Rong, they made the hard decision to send their daughter home with Katherine's grandparents.
"I missed her," said Yuan.
With a 12-hour difference in time, the father and mother found ways to talk to their daughter daily via webcam communications and watch her grow.
Yuan and Rong also visited their daughter on vacations, and the husband and wife managed to see each other a couple of times a month on weekends or vacations.
Regardless of the challenges Tao faced, Philip Aftoora, director of student services at the dental school said, "She remained at the top of her class and is an extremely strong person."
In her fourth year of dental school, Tao found out she was expecting another baby. About the time she learned of the baby, her father became a candidate for a liver transplant after suffering from a severe form of hepatitis.
She made the trip home as his condition worsened. Returning to the United States, Tao began to suffer some medical problems with the pregnancy that required surgery. Eventually she would give birth to Berwen a month early.
The baby struggled at first in the neonatal intensive care unit. The couple spent the first month caring for the baby, who required feedings every two hours. They had about 30 minutes of rest between those times. Today Berwen is growing and healthy.
The family has now begun the reunion as Katherine and her in-laws arrived recently in Cleveland to help with the new baby. The family will be complete when Yuan and the children move to Cupertino, Calif., to be with Rong after graduation.
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