When Shian "Mimi" Liu's alarm clock buzzes at 5 a.m. to force her out of bed, she rubs her eyes at the familiarity. She dresses robotically and steps out into the hazy fog toward the hospital to start the day's clinical rotations. She doesn't enjoy waking up this early, but after four years in the United States Naval Academy (USNA), she's used to it.
As she finishes up her second year of medical school at New York University, the 23 year old continues to appreciate the lessons she learned at USNA. Discipline. Humility. Perspective. They were hard-learned and strongly resisted, but she wouldn't trade them for anything.
Liu owes a good deal of her character and her entire education to the Navy, which paid for both her college degree and medical school. Although she will spend almost nothing to become a doctor, her education didn't come without a cost. But if she has to owe someone for her training, she would much rather be in debt to the Navy, where she can work off what she owes by serving her country.
"Someone will own you," she said. "If I didn't owe the military, I would owe the bank that lent me the money." And if she didn't owe the bank or the military, she would have owed her father.
Liu's parents brought her to the United States from China when she was nine months old. Although she was exposed to the Christian faith during her youth, family life was difficult. Her faith dissipated as she watched the bitter collapse of her parents' marriage. Growing up, her father promised he would pay for college, but the divorce tied up his money in legal fees. He pressured her to apply to the academy so her college costs would be covered. She never expected to be accepted, much less to go through with it. But she did. It was tough at the time, but Liu believes even that was from God.
Memories from her freshmen year at the academy, known as the Plebe year, are seared into her mind forever. In a testimony she wrote for Forefront Church, where she attends services in New York City, she described the challenges of her first summer:
"Every day I did not think I could run one more mile, do one more pushup, crawl through one more mud pile, gulp in one more breathe of that thick, humid, Maryland air…I had to cut away my long hair, say good bye to any trace of femininity, shoot a rifle, lose my individuality, start and end every sentence with 'Sir/Ma'am,' follow orders without hesitation, yell stupid phrases like 'Beat Army' and shout out Theodore Roosevelt's 'The Man in the Arena' until my vocal chords gave out."
During those first nine months, Liu cleaned a bathroom for the first time, waxed the floors of her room and learned to rush through 30 second showers. It was a year of struggle and humiliation. They break you down so they can build you back up, Mimi said of the academy's training philosophy. They set you up to fail, so that you learn to depend on your team.
Liu decided to transfer from the academy several times, but she always stopped short of sending her transcripts. Choosing to go to the academy wasn't nearly as important as choosing to stay. Out of the 1,400 students who endured Plebe year with her, only 1050 graduated in 2010.
Liu's mom, Qian Huang, said in an email that the years at the academy transformed her daughter. Originally, she feared the academy would destroy her daughter, who wasn't even old enough to sign her own admission papers at the time. But now she is amazed by the results: "Compared to civilian college kids, she is taking life much more seriously. Her dedication and sacrifice to our nation is inspiring thousands, including me."
Despite the struggles Mimi faced at the academy, she would gladly do it again.
During her years at the academy, Liu joined the chapel choir, which rekindled her faith in God. She started attending Sunday services and found solace in the sanctuary from the harsh demands of the military. During medical school, she experienced a heartbreaking breakup and grew more dependent on her relationship with God. She never expected to come to New York City and become a godly woman. She had never gone to church faithfully every Sunday. "Now, I have to have a quiet time every night," she said.
After Liu completes medical school and then a residency, she will owe the Navy nine years of medical service. She has counted the cost and is happy to pay it. She signed her life over to the military, but instead of feeling trapped, Liu feels free. "I have this freedom that I feel no one else in my medical school has," she said. "I don't have to worry about money. I know God is going to put me in the medical specialty, and I know I'm going to have to serve somewhere. And I am happy to serve."
For other medical students, loans play a significant role in charting out the future. Liu calculated that she would be at least $200,000 in debt if she had borrowed money for college. Since certain specialties earn higher pay than others, students have to calculate pay versus debt. But Liu doesn't have to pick her specialty based on how much she has to pay back.
Realizing that research is not her favorite part of medicine, Liu is considering specialties that are more useful overseas. Where she serves her nine years may be determined by the specialty she chooses. If she becomes a trauma surgeon, she likely will be sent to help soldiers in battle. If she chooses to deal with cancer patients, she will probably remain in the United States. But Liu hopes to put all those considerations out of her mind and make her choice through God's leading. After all, God is the only one who knows what her future holds.
No matter where she eventually gets deployed, Liu said she would be happy to serve her country and repay her debt: "I am in the military, and I love my country and I want to serve my country, And some of that means giving up the comforts of America, and I'm going to cherish that experience."