Brenau Strong: Diversity. Yao Yao Zhu took an unusual path for a rising U.S. military medical officer. It went through Brenau, but it started in China.

Captain Courageous

Yao Yao Zhu took an unusual path for a rising U.S. military medical officer. It went through Brenau, but it started in China.

Unless they’re trained a combat specialist and assigned to units whose main job it is to engage the enemy, military medical personnel, particularly those involved in long-term rehabilitative health disciplines, in the ordinary scheme of things are not likely to see action in a war zone. However, Afghanistan is no ordinary war zone. In 2012, U.S. Army Capt. Yao Yao Zhu, WC ’09, a doctor in occupational therapy, became chief of the concussion recovery center at Forward Operating Base  Salerno, Afghanistan.

Located in the southeastern part of the country near a strategic choke point in the mountainous no-man’s-land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the base in the 10 years that Americans occupied it became known as “Rocket City” because of the frequent attacks by mortars and rockets fired by Taliban guerrilla forces. The place was home to the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which includes Easy Company, the “Band of Brothers” unit that trained in Toccoa, Georgia, about 40 miles from Brenau’s Gainesville campus, before its deployment to Europe in World War II.

In June 2012, during Zhu’s time there, a Taliban suicide assault team staged a well-orchestrated suicide raid on FOB Salerno. All the Taliban were killed, but one U.S. serviceman died and about 100 others were injured. Zhu, who was unharmed, returned safely to Hawaii in 2013. For her service in the warzone, she received a Bronze Star Medal – awarded for valor or meritorious service in a combat situation – and the NATO Medal, awarded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to military personnel who served in Afghanistan.

Capt. Yao Yao Zhu won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan. Now she heads a company charged with recruiting top medical personal for U.S. military service.
Capt. Yao Yao Zhu won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan. Now she heads a company charged with recruiting top medical personal for U.S. military service.

After a brief stay at her post-war zone deployment base in Hawaii, she moved to Fort George Meade in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is a company commander in the largest Army medical recruiting battalion in the country. With a mission, mandated by Congress, to enlist top medical personnel into the military, the battalion comprises more than 100 medical specialties broken down into corps of physicians, surgeons and specialists; dentists; and nurses. Zhu is in charge of six medical recruiting centers and about 30 Army officers, senior enlisted soldiers and civilian employees. She searches for the most qualified OT specialists, physical therapists, dieticians, nutritionists and medical assistants to recruit.

As part of her job, she frequently appears before groups of college and university students, pitching the idea of military service to future health care professionals as well as sharing her unique story. That’s what brought her back to Brenau in March 2015.

“It was not the typical path. It was what just happened for me,” Zhu says. “But I love sharing my story and passion with others. It shows that there are opportunities in the Army that you wouldn’t have imagined.”

Doctor Started as a Patient

Zhu grew up in a well-to-do family in the Laioning province in northeastern China. Although the two Chinese characters of “Laio” – meaning “far” or “distant” – and “Ning” – meaning “made peaceful”– translates to “distant peace,” Laoining is anything but a serene, isolated area. With a population of about 44 million, it is heavily industrial and has the largest provincial economy of the region. Zhu compares her native home to the busyness of the Washington-New York-Philadelphia-Boston megalopolis, which has just slightly more people.

She attended a boarding school throughout her middle and high school years in an educational system that was highly structured and rigid compared to that of the United States. “Textbooks aren’t as information-detailed [in China] as in the U.S. They are more condensed. The school system is more education-based, while the U.S. system is more practical, experience-based,” she explains.

Of course, she adds, her experience with the Chinese education system occurred more than a decade ago, and she concedes things are changing, particularly in higher education. A case in point is Brenau’s recent agreement with two Chinese universities for 2+2 programs in which Chinese students will complete the first two years of their undergraduate studies at their home institutions but will graduate, after spending their junior and senior years in Georgia, from Brenau. The agreement also provides some exciting  collaborative opportunities for American students and faculty to engage in China as well.

“It is a great concept,” Zhu says. “Understanding the culture appreciation and open-mindedness will be great for them. Experiencing American life will be important, not just the academics. I hope the Anhui students will make good friends and find good mentors. That will help them understand the process quicker.”

Ironically, Zhu did not come to the United States initially to complete her education. She needed thyroid surgery that was not available to her at home. While she was here, however, her mother suggested that her daughter stick around and see what the U.S. educational system had to offer. She told her daughter that it was important to be immersed in the American culture and way of living. She was especially keen on the idea of Zhu’s attending a women’s college.

“Brenau was a stepping-stone to my learning the English language,” says Zhu. It was also perfect timing for her to apply. Brenau was in the midst of an international expansion period as well as expansions into health science professional programs, particularly broadening its then decade-old groundbreaking occupational therapy program, believed to be the first in North America built around a master’s degree as a threshold education requirement for entry into the profession.

Taking Nothing for Granted

After immediately engaging with what she described as the Brenau occupational therapy program’s open, friendly faculty and staff, the somewhat shy and quiet Chinese student settled into a very diverse OT departmental culture that included many students who like her were came to the United States from other regions: Africa, Jamaica, the Pacific Islands, Serbia, Russia, Poland, South America and China. However, Zhu was also unusual because she was one of only four or five Women’s College students in her OT cohort. The rest were mostly older adults – nontraditional students.

“She is a delightful person,” says Brenau’s current Director of Veteran and Military Affairs Rosanne Short, who was a campus administrator when Zhu arrived as a student. “She took her studies very seriously. She was so engaging, really giving 100 percent – full-force – to become part of the culture here.”

At her graduation, Zhu was the recipient of the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award, which honors students who are servant-leaders and inspire their fellow students. She was also a Pi Theta Epsilon Occupational Therapy Honor Student and a Phi Kappa Phi National Honor inductee.

“She so appreciated any opportunity she was given, and took nothing for granted,” says Mary Shotwell, department chair for Brenau’ occupational therapy program. “She was one of the hardest working students I ever worked with. She was a professor’s dream, working far in advance on her assignments. And she always said thank you, which you don’t hear from students very often.”

And, Zhu pushed the envelope a bit.

A number of Brenau OT grad students over the years have performed their required field work in Yucatan, Mexico, where the university has some long-standing relationships. However, Zhu had another field work destination in mind: China. Zhu’s family paid for her return ticket to China.  Associate Professor in Occupational Therapy Robin Underwood, and her husband, Chip, a special education teacher at the Learning Specialist for the Weber School, stayed in Zhu family home for two weeks during the project. The project also involved a former Zhu teacher Linda Hetue, an occupational therapist from Boston who was living in China while she worked at the International School in China.  

“Yao Yao’s family was very generous,” says Underwood, who with her husband was a guest for two weeks in Zhu’s family home. “Her father took us all to lunch as a thank you for helping his daughter,”

Currently, there are only a few occupational therapy programs in China, one of which is at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where Underwood and Zhu built a relationship with the school’s director. Underwood began to pick up on the cultural differences between China and the United States right away, particularly in the educational environment.

“In China the students don’t ask the teachers questions,” Underwood explains. “They don’t develop the kinds of student-teacher relationships that we do at Brenau. I remember walking with Yao Yao while at the university, and people were stunned. There are even separate cafeterias for professors and for students. When Yao Yao and I headed towards the student cafeteria to eat, I was told I was supposed to sit in the other cafeteria with the professors.”

At another point, the Underwoods and Zhu visited an orphanage where the children were in need of occupational therapy, but since the country had only just begun programs for OT and special ed., the staff was not trained to provide it. Robin’s husband, being a special education teacher, was asked to help mentor some of the staff at the orphanage about administering occupational therapy to the children.

Although Zhu says she may one day return to China to take what she’s learned at Brenau and in the military with her and help build on her home country’s nascent profession, for now she is “Capt. Zhu.”

Recruiting Poster Dream

Thea Moore and Juan Bryant speak with Captain Yao Yao Zhu during a presentation about OTs in the military on Brenau's Norcross campus. Moore is a 25 year veteran of the Air Force and Bryant a 20 year veteran of the Navy.
Brenau OT students Thea Moore, a 25-year Air Force veteran, and Juan Bryant, a 20-year Navy vet, speak with Yao Yao Zhu during a presentation at the Norcross campus last year.

If you were searching for a prime candidate for an Army recruiting poster, Zhu would be a good bet. She cuts an imposing, professional figure in the uniform adorned with combat and service ribbons under the medical corps insignia and silver captain’s bars.

After her graduation from the Women’s College with an M.S.O.T., Shotwell introduced Zhu the program director for a U.S. Army doctoral program in occupational therapy at Baylor University in Texas. Shotwell guided Zhu through the process of gaining experience she needed to qualify for the program and her parents in China supported her decision to lock into a program that, in exchange assistance with tuition and living expenses, would require military service in the U.S. Army.

As part of the process, Zhu completed a residency in 2009-10 at the Brooke Army Medical Center in nearby San Antonio and in 2011 she was assigned to the OT clinic at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.

In 2012 her orders came through sending her to FOB Solerno.

Underwood has always been impressed by the great strides Zhu made while at Brenau. “Given the culture and classroom environment that she grew up in, Yao Yao had to adapt a lot to the OT program at Brenau, and it grew her confidence,” the professor says. “I don’t know if she would have had the confidence [before Brenau] to pursue her desired career path.

The military, Zhu says, helped her bridge the still-huge gap that exists between the clinical and academic sides of occupational therapy.

“When I asked her what her favorite job in the military was, she said it was directly working with the people in the hospitals.”

Army Career

Zhu specializes in rehabilitation, working intimately with both soldiers and civilians who sustained injuries, with certifications in vision therapy rehab and cognitive rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury.

“It is very rewarding to treat the military population, and allowing [rehabilitated soldiers] to go home,” Zhu says. “I feel like I’m serving not only the population and my soldiers, but I’m serving my family, too.”

When she talked to the Brenau students last spring at the North Atlanta/Norcross campus, the message was part biography and part pure ol’ military recruiter sales, which is something she’s very, very good at.

The Army does more than help steer one’s career course, as it did for Zhu. Financially, it offers full scholarships, paid tuition, plus additional pay for military members attending college, and it also provides peer reports and mentorships for those looking to work in a particular division. Naturally, leadership is a huge component of the military, and members can invest in leadership courses much like the ones Zhu took while stationed in Texas.

Although it would seem that between recruiting, her clinical work, and all of her awards and recognitions, Zhu would have little time for anything else, she still has a rich personal  and social life. And the recruiter will tell you that the Army makes special accommodations for that side of life’s balances. Although it is typical for military members to move every three years to different locations, the Army provides the resources to move families and help non-military spouses find new jobs. When both spouses are in the military, the Married Army Couples Program tries  to keep their duty postings as close together as possible. Although that sort of nomadic life style may seem daunting to many military families with children who have to adjust to new schools and friends on a regular basis, Zhu says some find the lifestyle attractive: It gives them a better global understanding and appreciation.

“Everyone’s situation is unique,” explained Zhu. “But if I ever have children, I would continue the military lifestyle so they can see the world and gain an appreciation for all the various cultures.”

In addition to coming off as an all-you-can-be Army true believer, Zhu also believes in Brenau as well.  

“I miss the interpersonal relationships I had with my professors,” she says nostalgically, adding that she hopes one day she can inspire other Brenau students through her work. “One of the most memorable experiences was being in my OT honors group. I got to see different cultures within my group as we practiced clinical rotations. My personality and mindset all changed while I was there.

“Brenau was a cornerstone of my life.”


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