Gates scholar follows his passion

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Gates scholar follows his passion

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Park Joon-kee holds a letter of admission from Stanford University and the Gates Millennium Scholarship certificate that will pay his tuition and expenses at the prestigious private institution. By Park Sang-moon

Park Joon-kee is only 18 years old, but he has been a winner his whole life.

And never has he won anything bigger than the Gates Millennium Scholarship and admissions to top-tier universities like Stanford, Duke and Brown.

In education-obsessed Korea, Park is regarded as a maverick. He never attended a hagwon, or cram school, opting instead to form a school club studying North Korean human rights and join an NGO dedicated to improving conditions there.

Born and raised in La Canada Flintridge, California, until the age of 13, he says his background aroused curiosity on the Korean Peninsula.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Park at Asia Pacific International School in northern Seoul.



Q. You are one of 1,000 students chosen to receive the Gates Millenium Scholarship from among 54,000 applicants around the world. What made you stand out?

A. One thing that distinguishes me is that I follow my passion until I can turn that passion into reality. When I wanted to be involved in the North Korea issue, there was little I could do at first. I started contacting all the NGOs to work on improving North Korean human rights. Each said I was too young and said we don’t work with high school scholars. I was so disappointed, But one organization called Youth & Students’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights accepted me. I learned about human rights activists and how an NGO works, and I founded a school club to study North Korean human rights. I invited North Korean defectors to share their stories. Because of this passion, I delivered a speech at United Nations Human Rights Council Session in 2012; it was the most memorable event in my life.



How did you become interested in North Korean human rights?

My grandparents on my dad’s side came down South from Pyongyang during the [1950-53] Korean War. They always told me what it was like living in the city, and it’s interesting. My grandfather is a U.S. citizen, and he went to North Korea in the early 2000s. So, I heard a lot about the country, but so little is known. In the beginning, I read books and researched it, but I wanted to learn more.



You scored high in AP courses. How did you accomplish that?

Academically, I worked really hard and tried to take more advanced classes to challenge myself. I’d always go to teachers and ask extra questions.

Many, rather, every student in my grade goes to expensive hagwon in Daechi-dong or Apgujeong-dong. My mother once signed me up for a hagwon because she didn’t want me to miss out on any opportunities. I was there for about two hours. But from the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go because I didn’t want to burden my parents. I wanted to get the most out of my ability instead of counting on others.



Are there any other activities that have a big impact on you?

I am interested in learning. So, the journalism experience I had as an intern at the Korea JoongAng Daily in 2010 taught me what’s going on in society. I also learned the value of spreading information and knowledge. After the internship, I founded a school journalism program to introduce the press process to the school body.



Which field do you want to pursue in the future?

The thing that has inspired me most for my future pursuits is Korean history. I was especially impressed by the Korean independence movement against the Japanese colonization. I think the movement is an example of the highest bravery.

Broadly, I want to bring positive change to the Korean people and inter-Korean relations. Bringing change may come from my involvement in diplomacy. I’d like to further explore my interests after entering Stanford University. I plan to major in management science and engineering, and public policy.

By Park Eun-jee [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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