From darkness to light: A student’s journey from illness to her true passion

Rachel Clay at Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine during the May 2016 Confucius Institute China trip

Yin and yang. The dark-bright, polar opposites that cannot exist without each other.

Much like Rachel Clay’s passion for Chinese language and culture wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the pain she endured.

It was Fall 2015. Clay signed up for Mandarin Chinese and Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine – both offered through the Confucius Institute at Augusta University – on a whim. Although she was a pre-dentistry major, the classes sparked her interest.

When she went to her first Mandarin Chinese language class, her instructor gave her a questionnaire. The last question: “What do you expect to get out of this class?”

Clay’s answer: “I expect to come out of this class able to carry on a basic conversation and expand my knowledge of other cultures.”

What she didn’t expect was that the class would bring light to one of the darkest times of her life.

At the bottom of that questionnaire, she wrote, “Also, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor last semester and I was in the hospital for months. I lost my hearing in my right ear permanently but I don’t let that stop me!!”


Six months earlier – in February 2015 – Clay underwent surgery to remove a vestibular schwannoma, a type of tumor that was causing bleeding on her brain.

This benign tumor affects hearing, balance and facial nerves, and can be fatal if it grows too large. This type of tumor grows very slowly, however, so it was rare for someone as young as Clay to need such immediate surgery.

Apart from the hearing loss in one ear, the tumor left her with vertigo and partial facial paralysis.

Her doctors recommended she take time off from school, but she signed up for a full load of classes in the fall. Most were related to her pre-dentistry major – except for Mandarin Chinese and Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But despite her will to keep pushing forward, Clay said her brain chemistry just wasn’t the same. She struggled with depression and anxiety and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She ended up dropping all of her pre-dentistry-related classes.

“It was very hard on me emotionally,” Clay said. “But had it not happened, I might not have been led into the path that I was and be doing something that I love.”


Clay discovered that “something” in her Mandarin Chinese and Traditional Chinese Medicine classes – the only two classes she didn’t drop that fall semester.

“I said ‘I guess I’ll just stick with it,’ and it brought so much happiness and clarity to my life that I wasn’t expecting,” Clay said.

She remembers excitedly telling her family about her two classes, which would always brighten her day – even the darkest ones.

It was Clay’s passion for learning that prompted her Mandarin Chinese instructor, Xiaoxin Zhang, to encourage her to apply for the “People to People Honors Award” contest through the Confucius Institute U.S. Center.

About 100 students from Confucius Institutes in 18 states entered the contest. They were required to write about how learning Chinese language and culture made a difference in their personal development.

In her essay for the award, Clay explained how she pushed through illness and found her true passion along the way.

“For me, the Chinese language classroom has become a community, a family, and a refuge,” she wrote.

Clay was one of only 10 students to win the award. She’ll travel to Washington, D.C. in November to be recognized at the Confucius Institute U.S. Center’s national awards gala held at the National Press Club.

This award is a result of Clay’s persistence in learning Chinese, Zhang said, and her ability to push herself out of her comfort zone.

“She’s very brave, I think. When I asked my students, ‘Who wants to go to Dallas to compete in Chinese proficiency competition?’ nobody raised their hand,” Zhang said. “Except Rachel. Every time she raised her hand.”

Clay traveled to Dallas, Texas twice to compete in the preliminary round of the Chinese Bridge Competition – a type of “Chinese Olympics” that involves a culture test, a speech in Mandarin and a talent performance.

Rachel’s talent? Playing the guitar and singing in Mandarin. It’s just another way that she has pushed herself out of her comfort zone and immersed herself in Chinese culture. She’s also performed at various events at Augusta University and in the community.

“I just take advantage of any opportunity to spread Chinese language and culture,” Clay said.


The idea of duality – the yin and yang or dark and bright – and the importance of balance in life was a concept Clay first learned in her Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine class. This concept enlightened her and helped her heal emotionally.

“I realized that in order for me to become strong again, I should be relaxed, as power and relaxation are complementary opposites of each other,” Clay wrote in her award-winning essay. “This new instilled mindset continues to play an important role in my life, encouraging inner calmness when I feel the most pain, emotionally and physically.”

After her surgery, Clay was a shadow of her former self. Her facial paralysis, the most visible scar her brain tumor left, impacted her self-confidence.

But that changed during a Confucius Institute trip to China in May 2016. There, Clay experienced the Chinese culture and language she had learned in class. That experience ignited her inner strength again and sparked her confidence in her ability to speak Mandarin.

“At the time I was still dealing with self-consciousness and the way I looked because of my brain tumor,” she said. “But the people in China – no one seemed to notice.”

Clay has taken all four Chinese Mandarin classes offered through the Confucius Institute at Augusta University and continues to practice by talking to local Chinese people and using Mandarin language apps.

She also changed her major to French since the university does not offer a major in Mandarin. As a way to give back to the culture that gave her so much when she most needed it, Clay plans to teach English in China after she graduates.

“For anybody, if there’s a takeaway from this, it’s to follow your passion,” Clay said. “I think that’s going to bring the most happiness and success.”

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Written by
Tiffany Takahashi

Tiffany Takahashi writes for the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Augusta University. Contact her at

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Written by Tiffany Takahashi

Jagwire is your source for news and stories from Augusta University. Daily updates highlight the many ways students, faculty, staff, researchers and clinicians "bring their A games" in classrooms and clinics on four campuses in Augusta and locations across the state of Georgia.

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