When Joanna (Kit Ying-Tse) Tan’s family fled Hong Kong for the United States in 1965, she knew that the 18-day journey at sea was just the beginning of a challenging life ahead. Her father, once a high-ranking military officer in the Chinese National Party, had left a prominent managerial position so that he and his family could seek political asylum. With little money in their pockets, the family of seven moved into a small studio apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “My parents didn’t speak much English,” Tan recalls. “My father worked odd jobs, and my mother made $2 a day sewing clothes. We were worse than poor—but we were hopeful.”
Then just 11 years old, Tan was responsible for doing household chores and caring for her four younger siblings while her parents worked to make ends meet. But with their support and encouragement, she used any spare moment to study and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. “My desk was a broken ironing board, but I didn’t mind,” she says. “My parents sacrificed for our futures. To succeed was an expectation, not an option.”
Tan’s hard work paid off, and in 1971 she enrolled at MIT, where she discovered a new world of opportunities. She plunged in. She joined Campus Crusade for Christ and several other clubs, taught English to children in Boston’s Chinatown, and volunteered at area hospitals. Tan also worked at MIT’s Clinical Research Center, participating in groundbreaking projects to identify the lipoprotein particles that transport cholesterol in the blood. “The possibilities were endless at MIT,” she recalls. “I was drinking from the fire hose and loving every drop.”
After just three years, Tan earned an SB in biology and enrolled at the Tufts University School of Medicine, graduating with her MD in 1978. She and her husband, Kenneth Tan ‘75, practice family medicine at the St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Yorba Linda, California. In 2010 she was elected the first Chinese-American president of the Orange County Medical Association.
Tan credits her family’s hard work and Christian faith for her success, and she strives to use her skills to help those in need. She and her husband have led medical teams in Haiti, Honduras, and Mexico, and with their children, Derrick ‘06 and Jessica, they have served the poor during annual mission trips. “I love that we work together as a family,” says Tan. “My profession is my purpose.”