02/28/2013 03:19 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

A Hero's Journey: Scholarship Recipient Goes Full Circle

By Gary Yu, Alumni, Students Rising Above

My name is Gary Yu and I was a Student Rising Above scholarship recipient. My grandparents were Vietnamese refugees who escaped their war-torn homeland on April 30, 1975, the day of the Fall of Saigon. I grew up in a single-parent home and spent the early part of my childhood in a battered women's shelter.

When I was a senior in high school, I was accepted into the Student Rising Above (SRA) scholarship and mentoring program. They gave me the courage to tell my story of resiliency and survival. As a result of their mentorship, encouragement and financial support, I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2004 with a BS in bioengineering, and from Boston University's School of Public Health in 2006 with a MPH in epidemiology.

Giving Back
I am now finishing up my doctorate in public health and biostatistics at Columbia University where I am giving back to others that have given so much to me. I founded the Biostatistics Enrichment Summer Training (BEST) Diversity Program, which recruits under-represented minority and first-generation college students to pursue careers in public health. We received half a million dollars in support from the federal government to continue our program for the next five summers. All of this would not have been possible had Student Rising Above not invested in me and supported me with my endeavors.

The BEST Diversity Program eight-week summer program contains a research component, public health courses and graduate school preparation workshops. Students receive a competitive stipend of $2,800. All living and traveling expenses to and from New York City are paid for by my program.

Over the past four years, we have had 50 college students graduate from our program. 10 students are currently in graduate schools pursuing advanced degrees in law, business, medicine and health.

Summer of 2012 was a particularly gratlfying as our program welcomed our first Student Rising Above college student, Nchedo Ezeokoli. I was particularly impressed by her professionalism and hard work ethic. I have no doubt that she will make an excellent and passionate physician that will give back to her community.

Returning Home
This January, I had the honor and the privilege of going to Vietnam to conduct public health research for the first time in my life. I was sponsored by the US State Department's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While back in my family's homeland, I had the opportunity to visit the rural countryside where I saw vast disparities in income and health. I also had the opportunity to visit our home in Saigon that my family left behind when they fled.

As I look back on my accomplishments and my accolades, none would have been possible had I not taken a chance and applied to Students Rising Above. The SRA program provided me with career guidance and the much-needed financial support to not only graduate from college, but to pursue my dreams of being a public health practitioner and scholar. SRA was instrumental in the progression of my life's journey as a college student, college graduate, alumni mentor, and now internship employer of SRA students. It has been a gratifying journey.

Help SRA Help Others
SRA has helped hundreds of extraordinary young adults break the cycle of poverty through mentoring, college education, and job training. The more funding and awareness we raise, the more students we can help. Please visit our fundraising page on CrowdRise, and support our efforts to change the lives of hard-working young men and women in our country. Thank you.