Jacky Zheng ’19 hadn’t been born when his parents emigrated from China to the small town of Perry, New York, but he was one of the reasons they risked the trip. Like so many parents, the Zhengs hoped to provide their children with more than they’d had — a steady income, a strong education, a measure of certainty about the future.
And, they made it happen. Without high school degrees or the ability to speak any language but their own, the Zhengs opened a Chinese restaurant, eventually moving the family and business to Wilmington, North Carolina. Zheng and his sister flourished under the example of their hard work, tending the registers and manning the phones as soon as they could reach them.
“They’re definitely role models in my life,” says Zheng. “They sacrificed so much for me to be able to come here and have better opportunities.”
What his parents couldn’t have imagined was how, in moving to America for a better life, they would end up raising a son to be an unwavering advocate for a Chinese community 150 miles away. The life they’d wanted for him would become the life he wanted for others, his way of “making their dreams a reality,” he says.
In fall 2019, Zheng began his first year of medical school at Carolina, but he’s been caring for patients for most of his campus career. As co-director of the Mandarin interpreter services at UNC’s Student Health Access Coalition (SHAC), the nation’s oldest student-run free clinic, Zheng helped create a program where a Mandarin-speaking volunteer from the University is available at each week’s clinic to assist patients from the area’s growing Chinese community.
“This community has trouble accessing health care because not many clinics have translators,” says Zheng, who received a minor in Chinese in spring 2019, along with his bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. “And, there’s a real disconnect between Chinese medicine and Western medicine. It’s a lot for them to navigate.”
Zheng understands having to navigate the world around you on your own. His parents had not been able to give him much advice about college, other than encouraging him to find a good school and career he loved. As a teenager, he was envious of other kids with more present parents.
“My parents worked every day, night and day, but I wanted them to spend time with me. When I was in high school, my sister, who was a child when they emigrated, pulled me aside to explain what they’d been through, all these stories I’d not really known. That level of self-sacrifice finally hit me. I owed it to them to make more of what they’d given me, and I started challenging myself with harder classes and more activities.”
Then Carolina invited him to Project Uplift the summer before his senior year. Project Uplift is a program of the UNC Office of Diversity and Inclusion that promotes and increases access to higher education, especially for underrepresented populations, introducing them to campus life, faculty, students and activities for a taste of the college experience.
Carolina offered Zheng scholarship support, including the Carolina Covenant. With a love for science, he chose biology as his major, but when it came to careers, he drew a blank.
“A lot of freshmen in biology were already pre-med, so I kind of went along to see if this thing would stick,” he said.
It did stick — the complex and beautiful sciences, beginning to discover issues of access and disparities, the personal aspects of providing care. Zheng knew he could handle the academics, but “it was the blood I was worried about.”
To find out if he was made for medicine, Zheng trained that summer as an EMT and spent the next year juggling school and a job with a medical transport company in Durham. As an EMT, he was the one responsible for his patients’ vitals and safety. He found meaning in treating the pain he found in front of him.
“If you’re seeking out health care, you’re already having a bad day. You’re meeting them where they are. It’s a big responsibility.”
Zheng was a sophomore when SHAC’s Interpreting Services reached out. Their Mandarin-speaking volunteer had graduated, and they needed a new volunteer with an interest in health care and basic skills in this language.
“I immediately said ‘this is what I’ve been doing. I’m your man.’”
When he saw the volume of Chinese patients seeking care at SHAC, he recruited more students. Together they began to build a sturdy Mandarin translation program that could outlast their tenures on campus.
“This is a completely necessary service for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. It makes a genuine impact, and I want this program to be a constant resource for this community. This is where they go.”
Volunteering at SHAC was much more to him than finding a college activity that fit his skills. It was about providing others with access to what they needed — to health care and the right to be healthy — as so many had done for him.
“All my opportunities seemed to align right there. Language is a barrier to access, and I could alleviate that. When I saw the need in the Mandarin-speaking community, I created my own way to make the world better for those patients. I was carrying my parents’ torch.”
For many, he has been able to light the way. A woman brought in her brother to be treated for dementia. He needed care, but she needed to work. At SHAC, which has a full spectrum of services from social work to dental care, Zheng was able to facilitate the services they needed. Seeing someone of the same ethnicity who could speak their language during such an uncertain time helped the family feel safe, says Zheng.
“We signed them up for a financial assistance program for the under-insured and helped them get a neurologist. We have so many students who can give great care, but offering something familiar to those who don’t speak our language is one extra step we can take to show them they are in good hands.”
As Zheng prepares for Carolina’s commencement, new leadership and volunteers have been hired through a revised assessment program that screens not only for language skills, but also bedside manner, health-care experience, the ability to make judgments under stress and ask for help, as well as a desire to make the program stronger.
Next year, he’ll return to the SHAC clinic in other capacities, as most UNC medical students do in their first year. There are more needs to be met, and as he makes his way toward becoming a physician, those are the places where he’ll be found.
Jacky Zheng’s parents have sold their restaurant and retired. The scholarships their son earned with the hard work they’d modeled for him lifted a financial burden. Now they’re able to travel to China to visit family and finally take some time to enjoy the life they’ve built in the country that became theirs.
In a sense, the Zhengs have come full circle.