Xiangyue “Winnie” Wu has been many things: a doctor, a mom, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University, a surgical neurophysiologist. This December, she’ll be a registered nurse.

WinnieWu Photo by Timothy D Sofranko
WinnieWuFamily Photo provided by Xiangyue "Winnie" Wu.

“I asked myself what kind of person I most wanted to be. I was clearly aware that I was not doing my best. I’m the kind of person that seeks more challenges in life…”

By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications

A typical day for Xiangyue “Winnie” Wu begins at 5:30 a.m. Before everyone in the house wakes up, Winnie sneaks downstairs to make breakfast, packs a lunch for her daughter, Catherine, and studies note cards filled with the complex lexicon of medical care. When she is finally ready to leave, Winnie drives 20 minutes from her home in Union, Kentucky, to take Catherine to the Early Childhood Center on Northern Kentucky University’s campus.

Winnie’s day is just beginning.

She walks across campus to the Albright Health Center to attend the first class of the morning. Typically, she performs practice procedures on a mannequin in the simulation lab, while on other days she travels to various regional hospitals for on-the-job experience at a clinical. On most evenings, as her husband, Xiaowei “Shaun” Zhang, prepares dinner, Winnie tutors Catherine on piano before coaxing her 16-month-old son, Ryan, to sleep.

When the house grows quiet again, Winnie returns to her note cards for study.

While this kind of family routine is not uncommon, Winnie’s path to graduation is different than the typical nursing student. The 36-year-old mother of two, who is a student in the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program (ABSN), used to be a physician. She spent the first 27 years of her life in China, where she became a resident at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University after graduating from medical school specializing in internal medicine.

For a few years after their marriage, Winnie and her Shaun focused on their careers. In 2006, Shaun was offered the chance to pursue his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Pennsylvania State University on a scholarship. While he moved to the United States to pursue his advanced degree, Winnie stayed behind in China for a year to continue working as a physician at Zhongnan.

After one year apart and with nearly 7,500 miles between them, Winnie and Shaun made the decision to move to the United States together. The initial plan, however was for Winnie to pursue a master’s degree in biomedicine at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

People have asked Winnie why she would trade life as a physician for a bachelor's degree in nursing. But most people don’t realize how time consuming it is to become a doctor in the United States. The process could have taken up to a decade to complete. She wouldn’t need to go through medical school again, but she would need to finish the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and be matched to a resident program.

“It’s very difficult for a foreign-trained doctor to become a licensed physician in the United States and find a residency slot,” Winnie says. “I graduated from medical school 13 years ago, and all resident programs prefer fresh graduates. If it’s been too long, they think you have forgotten all the knowledge.”

Winnie and Shaun struggled for nearly three years, alternating three-hour drives every weekend, until Shaun graduated and joined her in New Jersey in 2010. Later that year, Catherine was born. Winnie received her master’s degree and continued on to pursue her Ph.D. at Rutgers while Shaun started work as a pharmacologist. Their lives were altered the following year in 2011 when Shaun lost his job.

The family struggled to stay afloat. Winnie needed a job to support her family help raise their child, and keep to her legal residency in the United States. After long thought, she decided to give up her Ph.D. study. Winnie began training as a surgical neurophysiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She spent three years stationed in operating rooms, electronically monitoring neurosurgical patients during surgeries.

Winnie and Shaun stayed in New Jersey until 2014 when he relocated to the Kentucky branch of Celanese—a global technology and specialty materials company headquartered in Texas—as a project manager. When they settled into their home in Union, Winnie revisited the idea of her future. It had been a few years since she stopped going to school, and she wasn’t happy. But the decision to go back wasn’t simple. Winnie now had two children, Catherine and Ryan, who was born in April 2015. How to balance family with a full-time course load weighed on her mind.

After months of debate, Winnie applied to the ABSN nursing program at NKU—a 16-month program that Winnie felt was her most feasible option. To some, it might seem like a step back from her career in China. But that’s not how Winnie assessed the situation. She just wanted to do what she loved—care for patients.

“I asked myself what kind of person I most wanted to be. I was clearly aware that I was not doing my best,” Winnie says. “I’m the kind of person that seeks more challenges in life and enjoys making continuous progress in a career.”

Winnie started her first day in the ABSN program August 17, 2015. Nearly a year later, she doesn’t regret a minute of it, even when it’s been difficult to balance life and school.

“I have to admit that not unusually I felt extremely stressed with four exams one week, baby crying, and a room in a mess,” Winnie says. “I try my best to manage my life as efficiently as possible. I could not remember how many days I spent overnight setting up the baby’s crib beside my desk.”

Instead of letting her situation overwhelm her, Winnie uses it to her advantage. She uses Ryan crying as an alarm clock. Feeding time is study break time. She started reading medical terminology and pharmaceutical names to Catherine while playing Scrabble.

Winnie has maintained a 3.75 GPA throughout her time in the program. To gain more experience, she works as a part-time nurse aide at St. Elizabeth Hospital in the neurology unit, which gives her more chances to be comfortable and ready for a career in nursing. She is also taking medical interpreter training at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and hopes to do more advocating work for non-English speakers.

The initial transition was difficult for Winnie, but she says the faculty in the ABSN program have supported her every step of the way.

“I love my program and the faculty,” Winnie says. “They always give us encouragement and help—in school and our personal lives. They’re knowledgeable and help us prepare for our future. The major positives for my program include carefully planned curriculum, lab experiences, and highly-ranked practical hospital placement for real-world nursing.”

Erin Robinson, assistant professor in the Department of Nursing, has worked with Winnie since she arrived on campus last August.

“Winnie is an outstanding student and very caring person. She is a true joy to be around,” Robinson says. “I am impressed with her level of dedication and extremely positive attitude. Winnie has managed the fast-paced nature of the ABSN program with impressive success and grace.”

Winnie was recently awarded the Janice Mabry Cantrall Excellence in Leadership Award, created in 2014 to honor the life and career of Janice Cantrall—a longtime nurse, nurse educator, and nurse administrator. 

Winnie expects to graduate from NKU this December. She plans to work as a nurse for a few years after she gets her license and then possibly return to school to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner.

“I am most amazed by her ability to balance her academic responsibilities with the needs of her young family,” Robinson says. “Winnie makes you believe that anything is possible.”