An American Dream

From the Sandstorms of Inner Mongolia to a Vanderbilt Ph.D-A Story of Genius, Triumph over the Impossible, and Perseverance

Zhaoying Han, ‘Natalie’, received her Ph.D in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University yesterday– an impressive feat in itself – but what separates her from the rest is her unmatched perseverance and determination despite the impossible odds her upbringing presented.

Natalie grew up in Inner Mongolia, China in a small, no-name town called “Daban”. Her parents, having come of age during the Cultural Revolution, longed to give their daughter everything they did not have – food on the table and the ability to go to college. Common in Chinese culture, Natalie’s laolao grandmother raised her from an early age as her father worked long hours in a bank and her mom in a local hospital as a nurse. By the age of five, Natalie went to school for eight hours a day. By the 6th grade, she was in school until after nine every night only to come home and study until the wee hours of the morning. It was during this time, when Natalie began to dream about studying in America. Less than 1% of her classmates would attend college and even the idea of studying overseas seemed out of the question and almost ludicrous. But Natalie held onto this aspiration as she pedaled her bike back and forth from school through the brutal sandstorms that swept across the desert-like terrain in her hometown. The three-mile ride needed to be accomplished four times per day, as it is customary to come home for lunch and dinner. Natalie still laughs when she thinks about wrapping a scarf around her entire face to protect it from the biting sandstorms – and said,

       “I almost cannot believe I endured such opposition – my American life is so    easy –  I have a car.”

In high school, the studying even became more arduous as she prepared for the GaoKao, an aptitude test that puts the SAT to shame, to enter college.

Natalie in highschool at a Karaoke Bar

Natalie was determined to enter TsingHua University – the MIT equivalent in China – and studied for months and months in addition to her schoolwork in order to receive the score on the standardized test she needed to be one step closer to her dream.

But she didn’t get in. Her parents stepped in and pulled some strings – using guanxi relationship or connections- the most important aspect in Chinese culture- to get her into the local college: Inner Mongolia University.

But that wasn’t the end of Natalie Zhaoying Han’s American dream.

       “College was easy – I went at 16 and didn’t have to study besides an all-nighter or two before my big exams,” Natalie said. “I began to focus on studying for my graduate entrance exam.”

Natalie received perfect score on her graduate entrance exam reviving her soon-to-be-abandoned American dream . The Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing accepted Natalie for their master’s in electrical engineering program – and for three years she nearly spent every waking hour in the research lab.  At the pivotal fundraising event for CAS, Natalie’s high tolerance for alcohol-characteristic of people from Inner Mongolia-came in handy. She was given the sole responsibility to help convince the military president to continue the school’s funding. But not in the traditional way. 

       “If he drank too much at lunch, he wouldn’t be able to ask questions about our presentation in the afternoon—he’d be sleeping. So it was my job to drink him under the table,” Natalie said, laughing. She was successful.

Starting in her second year at the Academy of Science, she began studying for the GRE, TOFEL, and submitting several journal papers for publication.

Natalie applied to 30 schools around the world – and received offers from Canada, Australia, and Singapore. But none of the American schools called. Instead of losing hope, Natalie researched Vanderbilt’s program heavily and took a more proactive approach. One night, she stayed up into the middle of the night to accommodate for the 13-hour time difference to call Professor Dawant – the professor heading up the medical image analysis research. In a language foreign to her, she nervously explained her ideas for his current research project – and her proactive phone call separated her from the rest and one week later landed her an offer.


Natalie stepped off the plane in America with the feeling all her worries and problems were left in China and she had arrived. She had accomplished her childhood dream and became a legend in the tiny town in northern China. But she was at the base of an even steeper mountain – one that would take her 6 years to climb.

Natalie’s PHD defense

Yesterday, Natalie defend her Ph.D thesis with pride and officially became Dr. Natalie Zhaoying Han. The past six years for Natalie have been grueling to say the least. She endured more personally, emotionally, and academically than most will experience in a lifetime. But with those words, “Congratulations Dr. Han” she achieved what can only be described as truly her wildest dream.

As a child, I dreamed the impossible: I wanted to become a doctor in America. I was a simple girl from a countryside town in Northern China… [l]ess than 1% of my high school attended college and at times my family barely had enough food to eat. But day after day, I pedaled my bike back and forth to school through the biting sandstorms — determined to make my dream a reality. Today, my dream has become reality.” Dr. Han, Acknowledgement section of her thesis entitled, Effects of Non-Rigid Registration Algorithims on Deformation Based Morphometry.

Dr. Natalie Han received offers from Harvard and Stanford– part two of her childhood aspiration. Originally, she planned to move to Boston, but decided to take the offer from Stanford as the research position is in the radiology department and more directly applies to her Vanderbilt research.

“Coming to America didn’t fix the emptiness I had battled for so many years…” Don’t miss part two of Dr. Natalie Han’s story concerning her personal journey through opposition- why she almost gave up her PhD- and how she found faith despite her allegiance to the communist party and atheistic worldview.

9 thoughts on “An American Dream

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  5. Hi Ruthie! I am loving your blog, and especially loving this story about Natalie. So proud of her…I hope you are doing well! And a belated congratulations on your wedding! You looked beautiful…

    • Hey Rhysie! So glad you are reading and thank you for the congrats on the wedding. We are loving married life! We need to catch up sometime. Isn’t Natalie incredible? I’m writing about her faith journey later this week, so check back because I believe you were in the Bible study she started coming to. Fun!

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