“I can see the sun peeping through the clouds,” Mingyon’s mother assured her as Mississippi farmland hurried past their car windows.
Mingyon and her mother were driving from their home in Clarksdale, Miss., to the University of Mississippi where Mingyon was attending law school. Halfway through the semester, Mingyon became very ill, and her grades began to suffer. She was on a mission to convince the department to allow her to stay despite her grades and attendance.
But they weren’t so understanding.
“We’re going to have to let you go,” they said.
Defeated, Mingyon turned and headed for the door—back to the car where her mother was waiting. But she remembered her mother’s resilience and encouragement, and she paused.
Suddenly in her mind, she’s six years old again. And her mother is asking what she wants to be when she grows up. “A teacher and a judge,” she stated proudly. Her dad, the pragmatist, informed her that she could not be both. “You can do it, Mingyon. You can do both,” her mom promised.
“So I turned around and said, ‘No, this is where I need to be,’ ” she said. “I ended up going to all the professors convincing them to let me stay.”
As a bright, new graduate of law school, the next task ahead of her was the Mississippi bar exam. She passed and began practicing.
But when her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and passed away, Mingyon was faced with a new challenge: raising her 11-year-old nephew. One night as they were reading, Mingyon noticed that he kept stumbling over the words on the page. He didn’t know how to read.
Deeply troubled and grieving the loss of his mother, he wasn’t interested in learning. He told her his only goal was to join a gang. A young attorney and still seemingly a child herself in some ways, Mingyon was determined that her nephew’s future would not be so ill-fated. Slowly, she taught him to read until he eventually graduated with honors.
But just a couple years after her sister died, Mingyon’s mother was diagnosed with dementia. Mingyon would often turn to food and overeating to cope with the additional stress.
They decided to move to Nashville so her mother could receive better care. But that meant she wouldn’t be able to practice law until she sat for the Tennessee bar exam. As Mingyon balanced caring for her aging mother and young nephew, she began to lose her drive to practice law, delaying her exam and starting to gain weight.
“I kind of put my dreams on hold to get my mom the health care that I know she really deserved,” she says. “But I started to lose me.”
After 10 years, her mother lost her battle. Six months later, Mingyon lost one of her brothers from a pulmonary clot. Then in June 2016, she received word that another brother died suddenly of a heart attack while standing in line at the grocery store.
Emotionally exhausted and financially defeated, Mingyon was depressed and continued to gain weight, reaching 323 pounds with her sugar at an all-time high. Poor heart health seemed to run in her family, and Mingyon was concerned for her own future.
Her best friend encouraged her to try New Beginnings, a nonprofit fitness and nutrition center for women.
“She thought it would be a great avenue to find who I am and to get back on the right track because she knows that my whole life my dream was about reaching an education and giving back. She knows that law has always been my dream but I kind of lost my way.”
She was hesitant at first to try a new program.
“I just thought that this was the size I was going to be for the rest of my life.”
She set a goal and started to exercise and choose healthy foods.
“l learned how important eating right and exercising is on my overall health and my mentality,” she says. “When I first started, I was so depressed about losing my mom and my two brothers that losing weight became like learning to cope with losing them. But then it became so much more. It just started by walking in those doors at New Beginnings.”
She lost 20 pounds and continued to gain her health back, but she knew there was still more to accomplish—beyond the scale. She thought of her mom and what she would want for her daughter’s life.
“She was so strong. She taught me to be fearless,” she remembers. “Nothing stood in her way.”
Mingyon decided it was time to finally sit for the Tennessee bar exam. She studied and worked hard for months, but when she got her results back, she was speechless. She had failed by two points.
“That was the ultimate failure for me. Because I feel like if I don’t know nothing else, I know the law.”
She says the old Mingyon would have turned to poor eating habits when faced with disappointment. But two hours after receiving her results, Mingyon was back at New Beginnings working out.
“I felt like I was among family, and it made me feel better.”
Mingyon is down 60 pounds, and her insulin levels have been reduced dramatically. But her journey isn’t over. She’s determined to pass the Tennessee bar exam.
“By taking care of my mom and nephew, I’m beginning to find that there’s a more giving person in me. Now I think there’s something else; more I want to do with the law degree. I realized all this time that I’m studying I could be giving and doing more. Maybe using my degree and my teaching background and the spirit of who I am maybe in another way.”
Regardless of her future—teacher or judge, or both—Mingyon was able to push past the heavy clouds that shrouded her for so long and find her family at New Beginnings. It took the community and support at New Beginnings for Mingyon to rediscover her strength and start her journey to wellness.
“It was so much more than just losing weight. I found myself.”