Updated: Jun 30, 2021
By Alexandra Svokos
We looked nervously at each other before admitting it: our entire nonfiction workshop had been moved beyond belief by Yiling’s love letter of an essay, written about her now-fiancée. It was the kind of piece that typically gets torn to bits by critical readers for being cheesy and self-serving. But under Yiling’s controlled hand it was an honest, lyric tale of love built on mutual support and reliance, crossing cultures with care and attentiveness.
Yiling Bao, GS ’14, was born in China to a pioneering businesswoman in a modest household. After being homeschooled for high school, in 2006 Yiling had her first novel published in “Flower City,” an authoritative literary journal in China. She also worked as a journalist, writing stories that were often put on the cover. Soon, the government invited her to be a professional “contract” author. She signed a three-year contract but only stayed for the first; she felt limited by a contract that only wanted her to write specific, positive pieces about the country.
Initially, Columbia denied Yiling admission: the school told her that her English was not good enough. So she moved to New York in 2010 to take English courses. After one session, she obtained a recommendation from a Columbia professor and was accepted into the school of General Studies.
At first, Columbia life was difficult. Yiling’s mother sold their house to help pay tuition. Yiling herself has been working steadily since she came here, from posting fliers for professors to consulting students as they apply for college. Meanwhile, her social life was in a bad place and she was depressed.
Yiling knew something had to change, and she brought that forth from herself, changing her own perspective to live day by day. “If I can live one day in this world, I have to live with a smile,” she explains. “I have to face the world with my smile and use all my energy and love to make this day the best day of my entire life.”
It is this boisterously positive energy that makes her remarkable to everyone she interacts with. Joanna Hou, GS ’14, first noticed Yiling at a GS international student cruise. “I didn’t talk to her much,” Joanna said, but she was attracted to her exuberance on the dance floor. Joanna approached her when she saw her in Butler and they became fast friends.
“I like her passion,” Joanna said. “And how she treats her fiancée is really touching.” Yiling pulled off what many of us consider impossible: finding a husband at Columbia. This past New Year’s Day, Yiling got engaged to John Schiffer, GS ’14, the Vice President of Columbia MilVets.
John and Yiling met last January while volunteering at GS orientation. When he first met her, John thought “she was really fun and outgoing, especially compared to the other Chinese girls who tend to be a little more conservative.” John speaks Mandarin, closing some of their culture gap. They quickly fell in love and plan to get married this August. Yiling has visited his family in New Mexico—“my dad loves her,” John said—and will be visiting her family in China over spring break.
“I really appreciate my life, and I am so blessed to have this,” she said. “Life is sometimes down, sometimes up. Just don’t give up. Have the confidence from inside yourself so that you can make it. I really feel like I made it through.”