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International student completes degree while recovering from stroke

| Judy Berthiaume

After playing in a pickup basketball game, Kee Shen Yim was hanging out with friends in a residence hall on UW-Eau Claire’s campus when the intense headache hit.

As he tried to tell his friends that he was ill, he realized he was mumbling and no longer had control of his right arm.

“My father had a stroke so I knew immediately what was happening,” says Yim, a UW-Eau Claire international student from Malaysia. “My girlfriend got me to the hospital, where I spent the next several weeks. Right after I had the cerebral hemorrhage, I was completely paralyzed. My life changed forever that night.”

While his life changed, his dreams for his future did not.

Despite his health crisis, Yim was determined to earn his degree from UW-Eau Claire, a goal that first brought him to the United States.

On Saturday — just 18 months after his life-threatening brain hemorrhage and still partially paralyzed — Yim will walk across the Zorn Arena stage as he graduates with a bachelor’s degree in actuary science from UW-Eau Claire.

Even more impressive?

He has already passed three of the required and notoriously difficult actuarial professional exams.

Each of the exams, sponsored by the Society of Actuaries and offered worldwide, have pass ratios below 50 percent.

“I always was determined to stay here and finish my degree,” Yim says of continuing his studies at UW-Eau Claire after the stroke. “I just couldn’t let that goal go. I was already halfway through my program so I knew I would continue.

“I worked hard to maintain my grades despite having a lot of medical commitments, to pass the actuarial professional exams using my nondominant hand and finally to graduate.”

Yim is a top student whose enthusiasm for learning and asking insightful questions inspires the students around him, says Dr. Kris Presler, a professor of mathematics and director of the actuarial science program.

Those traits were even more impressive as Yim continued his studies at the same time he also was continuing his difficult recovery, Presler says.

“His performance in Math 470 will always stand out as one of the finest examples of perseverance that I have ever witnessed,” Presler says. “Even without the health crisis, to perform as well as he did is certainly impressive. When one factors in that he was just weeks into recovery and that he always maintained such a positive attitude despite the challenges, it truly is amazing.”

The 18 months since his stroke have been extraordinarily challenging physically and mentally, Yim says, adding that it was even more difficult given the distance he is from his home and his family in Malaysia.

While he communicates with his family regularly, financial and other reasons made it impossible for them to travel to Eau Claire to be with him during his recovery, he says.

After his May 31, 2016, brain hemorrhage, Yim spent more than a month in the hospital, and several weeks more in a wheelchair.

He now can walk again, but his right leg continues to trouble him, and he has very limited use of his right arm or hand.

“I had to force myself to learn to write with my left hand and to learn to walk again,” Yim says. “I had a difficult time when classes started in September as I had a lot of therapy sessions to attend and I had to manage my studies at the same time.”

Given the ongoing rehab and continuing challenges he faced, he enrolled in just one class for the 2016 fall semester.

However, by the 2017 spring semester, he was again carrying a full credit load.

Returning to college full time was possible, Yim says, because of the support he received from the faculty, staff and students who make up the UW-Eau Claire community.

The staff in the Center for International Education was especially supportive and helpful, particularly when it came to navigating the United States’ complex health insurance and health care systems as an international student.

UW-Eau Claire’s international student community rallied around him, giving him a much-needed social circle where he felt comfortable despite his challenges, Yim says.

“My family was thousands of miles away so it was tough at first,” Yim says. “Later, with the platform provided by UW-Eau Claire, I was able to network with other international students who also were far away from home. That was very helpful to me.”

In addition, his professors were supportive and encouraging as he adjusted to learning in new ways.

Things that had come easy for him before the stroke were more difficult, including speaking in English, Yim says.

“Everything was changed for me,” Yim says. “I always had a high GPA but after the stroke I had to ask lots and lots of questions. My English is not as good as it had been. I often had to reread things to be sure I understood them and I could not talk as fast as I did before.

“My professors were very patient. I was very glad I was on a small campus with professors who were willing to support me.”

With graduation just days away, Yim is enjoying his last days as a UW-Eau Claire student but also looking forward to his future.

“I am excited because I’m completing something that I am proud of,” Yim says of earning his bachelor’s degree. “But I also am excited to find a job and do what is next.”

His advice to UW-Eau Claire’s newest alumni?

“Don’t take anything for granted,” Yim says. “There are many things I loved doing that I can’t do any more.

“Life is not always easy. Pain is inevitable. Instead of giving up, strive hard and move forward.”

Photo caption: Kee Shen Yim will graduate with a degree in actuary science just 18 months after suffering a stroke.