Flora Yang remembers vividly what it was like to be a child unable to express herself to her teachers because they spoke different languages.
In the first few years of her life, Yang lived in China with her grandparents as her parents worked to build a stable life for their family in Singapore.
At the age of nine, she and her family moved to Minnesota, settling in Eden Prairie. Yang said she had to quickly learn how to adapt to such a major life transition.
Those adaptation skills, along with immense ambition and a passion for advocacy, have enabled her to overcome multiple barriers throughout her journey.
During high school at The Blake School in Minneapolis, Yang held several leadership positions to support students. Those experiences, she said, inspired her to want to do more.
And she is. Yang, now 20 and an incoming senior at the University of Minnesota majoring in human physiology, was recently elected student-body president of the Minnesota Student Association. She’ll assume that role on July 1 and will be paid $6,000 for the term.
Her goals as president center on expanding students’ access to university resources with a focus on health and wellness, and academic affairs. The current student-body president is Abdulaziz Mohamed.
Serving alongside Yang will be association vice president Zeke Jackson. Both are already taking steps to prepare for their roles.
“One of the reasons I really look up to Flora is because she, as a leader, is just insanely empathetic, and she can view issues from a lot of different perspectives,” Jackson said. “She’s very thoughtful and articulate and can express the viewpoint of people that are perspectives that aren’t even necessarily her own.”
An early appreciation for the university
Yang’s relationship with the University of Minnesota began early.
In middle school, she participated in the university’s Talented Youth Mathematics Program, one of the nation’s premier accelerated math programs for middle and high school students.
Doing so “allowed me to really see the campus and get the feel and the vibe,” Yang said. “So I wanted to be able to sort of continue and in the place that I already knew and I already appreciated.”
Yang added that she also wanted to stay close to family so she could develop a close bond with her younger brother, her only sibling, who was just born at that time. And there was a financial incentive: in-state tuition.
During her first couple of years in college, Yang served on two Minnesota Student Association task forces to support students – one focused on meeting basic needs for students and the other on preventing sexual assault. In addition, she served in a support role to the student representatives on the university’s Board of Regents.
Currently, Yang is graduating next year and she serves as the association’s ranking student representative to the regents. She attends monthly regents’ meetings to voice student concerns and acts as a liaison between the regents and students. The position also allows her to sit on the Minnesota Student Association’s executive board, which Yang said helps to provide her with a comprehensive view of student-led advocacy efforts.
“Those experiences are very valuable to me,” Yang said. “I was really grateful to be given that opportunity to sit in these positions and advocate for students this way.”
Serving as student-body president will extend her opportunities to help students, she said.
A tragedy helps shape her career choice
Settling on a career choice wasn’t as straightforward as deciding to run for student body president.
Picking a career meant a lot of “ruling out” at first, she said. “I had a lot of people to reference,” she said. “My mom’s a teacher. My dad’s a hearing engineer. I have family members who are in finance and all of these different fields.”
She felt drawn to pre-medicine, and eventually decided that she will pursue a career as a neurosurgeon.
“The brain is just a really complex organ,” she said. “It’s super cool that it’s able to control thoughts, memory, emotions – literally things that you need to be alive.”
The second reason she chose the field was because of a family tragedy.
A couple of years ago, Yang’s grandfather, who lives in China, was visiting her aunt in Chicago. While riding a bike there, he was hit by a car.
At first, he appeared to be recovering well. But while on a plane ride in China, Yang said there was a medical incident that caused the plane to land in an emergency.
“He never really recovered from that. He is paralyzed from the neck down, and so my grandmother in China is taking care of him,” Yang said.
Yang described her grandfather, who along with her grandmother cared for her early in her life, as a “father figure.”
When she heard from doctors that they didn’t know what was actually wrong or how to diagnose her grandfather’s injury, Yang said “it added another layer of complexity to my understanding of what it means to work with the brain and what it means to be a neurosurgeon.”
She also witnessed the support provided by the physicians in China who operated on her grandfather.
“It takes so much to be a neurosurgeon,” she said. “You’re going to be under such high stress, but they were able to hold down the fort, and also comfort family members that were there. That encompassed everything that I wanted to embody.”
A vision for the future: Addressing student hunger and campus wages
In a campus election last March, a major Minnesota Student Association effort to increase the student worker minimum wage to $15 an hour passed with a majority vote. Yang said one of her major goals is to make sure that change is implemented, starting next school year.
Another goal is to expand the presence of food trucks and the food pantry system on campus.
“There’s lots to be done,” she said. “Basic needs, you know, campus safety. These things are huge priorities for us because they’re huge priorities for the students. We really want to hit the ground running, which is why we’re putting a lot of work right now into this transition period.”
Yang said she and Jackson want to be proactive, since by the time they assume their new roles on July 1, university administration and Minnesota Student Association timelines will be different.
“We want to be very strategic in terms of who we’re talking to right now,” she said. “And how can we better be involved in those recommendation processes at the very beginning so that we don’t run into some of those timeline issues.”
“If we’re being strategic and if we really follow through on our commitments, we are able to do so much for not just us as people but also for the student population as a whole,” Yang said. “I honestly can’t thank the people in this organization enough for being there for each other, and being there for everyone else at this university.”