Amish upbringing fuels man's desire to help others

Lee Elliott

It is not surprising that a young man who speaks five languages, is a world traveler and is a senior biology major in college, might be accepted at three Ohio medical schools.

What is surprising is that he was able to enroll in college with just an eighth-grade education and that his family is Amish.

Andy Yoder, 29, of Sugarcreek, Ohio, returned last week for his final semester at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Goshen, Ind. He will spend most of it in a four-month study abroad program at Tanzania, Africa.

Yoder, who has been accepted at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health, has chosen to attend Ohio State.

“Can a person who grew up driving a horse and buggy, not having electricity, not watching TV or listening to the radio, speaking English as his second language, and only having an eighth-grade education, survive college and medical school?” he asked in his personal college application essay.

The answer to each of those questions is clear: He can.

Yoder and his four brothers, Mark, who died in an auto accident nine years ago; Robert, 27; Mose, 24; and Noah, 15, grew up on the 115-acre farm at Sugarcreek built by his grandparents, Noah E. and Clara Miller. His parents, Abe and Susan, have 30 dairy cows, which are milked daily, and 15 draft horses, which they breed and sell.

As children, the brothers milked cows by hand in the 100-year-old barn before walking to Stoney Point School. They returned to the farm each afternoon to do chores late into the evening. Today, the cows are milked by machines powered by a gas generator, the three older brothers have left the Amish Church for the Mennonite, and only Noah remains on the farm. Their grandmother, Clara, still lives there in her own house behind the family home.

“Fortunately, my parents and the community have been understanding about the change,” Yoder said. “In many Amish communities, if you leave the church, you are shunned and cannot return to your family home. My parents have been wonderful, welcoming me home when I am not in school. I love the Amish culture and never thought I would leave it, but something more than my short education beckoned to me. I always enjoyed school and dreamed of going to high school and college.”

Yoder’s father, Abe, said, “Well, of course we would rather have the children stay in the Amish community, but since Andy wanted so much to be a doctor, this was about the only way he could do it, and we support that decision.”

After completing the eighth grade, Yoder worked in a factory for a year and then in construction for four.

“I really learned a lot from construction,” he said. “It gave me a better perspective on the lifestyle of the working class and taught me skills that I will be able to use my entire life.”

At age 21, he chose to leave the Amish church and join the Mennonite sect. It was a two-week service trip with Walnut Creek Mennonite Church that changed his life, Yoder said. He enjoyed the experience so much that he signed up to stay for three years.

While living with a Costa Rican family in the capitol city of San Jose, he learned fluent Spanish and helped with building projects including a hospital for illegal immigrants from Nicaragua. He also traveled to Nicaragua and Venezuela, where he lived with various families and worked on community projects.

“I enjoyed the Costa Rican culture so much, that at one time I thought I might just live my whole life there, but I changed my mind after working with some doctors as an interpreter,” he said. “I realized that I had a passion for medicine. I told the doctors I would like to go to college but didn’t think I could because I only had an eighth-grade education. They encouraged me to take the GED and ACT tests. They were very difficult for me with my limited background, so I had to spend a lot of extra time preparing for them. I was so happy when I passed them, and for the first time in my life, I used a computer and applied to Goshen College.”

Yoder said that furthering his education was the most difficult experience of his life.

“While my eight years of school prepared me to work in the construction business or on the family farm, it did not prepare me for high school, let alone college,” he said. “We only spoke Pennsylvania Dutch (a combination of Dutch and German) in our home and High German in our church services.

“We didn’t learn any English until we started school. Math only included arithmetic, and as a pre-med student in college, I had to take calculus. Since my education did not prepare me for advanced courses, everything I studied in college was completely new to me. Had I not had the wonderful work ethic I was taught growing up on an Amish farm, I never would have survived it.”

Yoder is as driven outside of the classroom as he is in. For nine months he served as an interim pastor at the Walnut Creek church, preaching, leading small group Bible studies and visiting hospital patients.

“The hospital visits convinced me even more that I wanted to be a doctor,” he said.

At college, he participated in the Maple Scholars blood cell research program, giving presentations on the results for the faculty and students.

Because of his Spanish speaking skills and travel experiences, he was elected vice president of the Latin Student Union, and this past year has served as co-president of the Pre-Med Club, which raises funds to support the Aids for Africa Foundation.

That venture has led to the study of his fifth language, Swahili, which he will be using during this semester in Africa.

“Two of my passions are working with people and enjoying the great outdoors,” Yoder said.

He recalls one of the highlights of his life, coaching a 16-and-under softball team that took second place in both state and national tournaments. He also loves hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.

Every other day he works out at a gym and then spends an hour running on a track.

“I love to have fun and try new things,” he explained. “A few of my adventures include bungee jumping, sky diving, rafting and canopy touring through the jungles.”

These myriad activities may have to be curtailed when Yoder enters medical school in August. Once again, he will be dealing with what, for him, is the unknown.

“I won’t let anything deter me,” he said. “My goal is to study oncology and to return with my degree to provide medical services for the Amish community. And then ... ,” he added, “I also want to travel the world and help those in need.”