Life After Gang Lu

Miya Rodolfo-Sioson was given a second chance at life. She was chosen for a purpose.

Miya was the lucky one. The odds had turned against her in an instant but reversed course just as quickly again.

Your faith tells you which of the above statements you believe, but the facts tell you this: Miya Rodolfo-Sioson was the lone survivor of the 1991 University of Iowa shootings. She was a temporary secretary—the victim of a dispute that didn’t involve her. By fate, by grace, or by luck she had a second life to live. She used it proudly.

Daniel Julien met Miya in that second life, lived mostly in Berkeley, California, where she’d moved to escape Iowa’s cold winters and the weight of the Gang Lu shootings. The woman Julien met there, paralyzed from the neck down since that awful November day, intrigued him for more than just the events that had defined her life.

“I didn’t know what to expect of a quadrapalegic doing demanding work,” Julien said of the woman he had hired to work at his student exchange program. “But she turned out to be capable of many things which able-bodied people are not.”

He decided to make a movie about her. Julien’s film, Miya of the Quiet Strength, shows April 12th at the Pappajohn Business Building on the UI Campus as part of a week commemorating her life. Other events include a photo exhibit, luncheon and outreach events, all of which are listed on the film’s website

Miya had been an activist as a young adult, before she was shot. But after landing in California, she became an advocate for the rights of the disabled. She spoke at community meetings on the issues important to her peers. She was appointed to the Berkeley Commission on Disability in 1998, where she served for eight years — two of them as chairperson.

“Everyone told her she was an inspiration,” said Julien. “She didn’t like that word. She called it the ‘i-word.’ But it’s hard to avoid it when you talk about her story.”

Miya Rodolfo-Sioson in classIt was years after they first met when Julien heard from a mutual friend the truth of what Miya called her “accident.”

“To me this event is like ancient history,” Miya told San Francisco’s KGO-TV in 2008, “There’s so much that’s happened since then.”

Not all of it was good. Shortly after Julien learned of the shooting, Miya told him she had cancer. That’s when he told her he wanted to make a film about her story. She accepted, even though she’d turned down offers from professional crews before.

For 13 months, Julien documented Miya’s activism in the Bay Area, sifted through the media archives of the incident and interviewed her friends and family. He dove into the issues that affected her life like disability rights, gun control and health insurance.

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In March of 2008, he returned to Iowa City to learn more.

“I discovered so many things about her that she had never talked about,” Julien said. “Our culture is so much about bragging about things we’ve done… or didn’t do. She was the opposite of that.”

In Iowa City, Miya had organized student activists against the U. S. involvement in El Salvador, was interested in women’s rights and, when her rehab was complete, she had returned to finish her degree on the same campus that had been the scene of so much heartache.

When he was wrapping up the film, Julien got a call from Miya. She wanted to do one more interview. She wanted to talk about dying.

“It was difficult to shoot. She was very private, but had opened up during the filming,” Julian recalled.

The film was finished in November 2008. Julien held a special screening for Miya, her family and friends in the hospital where she was being treated for stage four breast cancer. Days later, Miya passed away.

In a message on the film’s website, her former Iowa City roommate, a woman named Suzanne, laments: “I have always felt that if I had been the victim, I probably would have drowned in bitterness and regret at what I had lost. But Miya refused to fall into that pit. She just got on with the job of living. I still find it hard to comprehend how, after overcoming such obstacles, she should have to endure [cancer, too].”

The fates. God. Chance. Whatever it was that dealt Miya Rodolfo-Sioson a cruel hand didn’t account for her resilient spirit. Quiet Strength documents a life lived beautifully under such trying circumstances.

“Miya never realized the impact she had on other people,” recalled Julien. “She underplayed the things she had done even though she had done a lot more than most of us.”

Forgive the viewers, Miya, if you’re called an inspiration.