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Koreatown student ‘beats the odds’ by winning $10K scholarship
By Tae Hong
David, who was born in South Korea, saw his world come apart at the seams when he was five years old.
He remembers his father — a smart man, a Seoul National University professor — leaving for work in America and never returning. He remembers his family’s upper-middle-class privilege swept from under them, and the ensuing struggle his mother faced as she worked thankless jobs at bars and restaurants. He remembers being sent to live in a home under Christian missionaries as a foster child, remembers saying goodbye to his mother a year later as he was taken with them to Chengdu, China, and remembers being bullied for his fragility.
Twelve years later, David Cho, 18, is at the top of his graduating class at Robert F. Kennedy Community Los Angeles High School of the Arts and one of five recipients of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds scholarship, an honor that sees high-profile support each year to outstanding students who despite their financial situations have demonstrated overcoming personal hardships through academic excellence.
The scholarship has proven to be something of a miracle to David and his mother, Lee Mi-kyung, who said the opportunity has given them hope for a brighter — more possible, even — future more than it has been about the $10,000 check.
“[The program] opened my perspective and the way that I thought about my future,” he said. Besides the prize money, Beat the Odds provides academic resources and networking opportunities. “Before, I didn’t think I would be able to aim for an Ivy League education. I never imagined it. I saw the numbers, the money that you need to have. I was scared. But [the program] allowed me to prepare for college, gave me information about financial aid, and made me realize that everything is possible.”
He and the other scholars were joined at a gala Thursday put on by scholarship organizers and with stars like Conan O’Brien, who hosted the event, Reese Witherspoon and Gwendoline Christie.
Earlier this year, he found himself the subject of a short documentary — shown at the gala — taken on by Korean American actor John Cho. David spent a few days bonding with the “Star Trek” actor, who followed him for three days around his home, school and in everyday activities.
The camera earned him a nickname from curious classmates: Movie Star.
“It’s not a normal experience for other people to have, and that’s one thing that’s really beautiful about this scholarship,” he said, recounting another unique instance in which he had the chance to visit J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions. The visit was especially eye-opening for David, who has dreams of operating his own business one day.
Marian Wright Edelman, a longtime children’s rights activist who founded the Children’s Defense Fund 25 years ago, said the program offers scholars on-going mentoring, internship placements, leadership development and career guidance throughout their high school years.
It’s a support system for students like David, she said.
“These youths are not just trying to graduate from high school, many are excelling in life despite tremendous odds stacked against them, like homelessness, abuse and family separation,” Wright said. “They are proof no one should ever give up on any child.”
Six years ago, David, then 12, arrived in the states to start a new life together with his mother.
The pair live in a tidy, one-bedroom apartment in the heart of a densely packed Koreatown.
For David, financial insecurity is what drives his will to keep up his grades. He’s been a straight-A student since the ninth grade.
“I was never upset about the fact that I grew up poor. Never. Because without that characteristic, I wouldn’t be getting this opportunity. I wouldn’t have [been driven] to be No. 1 at school,” he said.
The desire to give school his all first came to him, he said, when he was reunited with his mother following isolated years in China.
David still keeps his memories of his time in Chengdu, where he said he felt weak, physically and mentally, all the more so from being harassed by bullies for being “a crybaby.” When he turned 10, he learned of his father’s passing from diabetes three years prior by his mother.
“The world was just miserable for me when I was young. When I was in China, I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to escape the life I was living,” he said. “Then I realized, my mom is my only family. I didn’t want to see her suffering. I realized that if I’m not successful, my life is not going to get any better, and her life is not going to get any better. I realized that when I was young. Education is the only way I have to escape where I am right now.”
In many ways, his worries are those of a typical college-bound high school senior, from acing the SATs and getting into a good college to preparing for the official transition from teenager to young adult.
And in other ways, they’re not — what David is worried about, above all, is of leaving his mother alone, and of not being there for her should she need him.
“My biggest motivation for success is to pay back everyone who has helped me, and the first person, of course, is my mother,” David said. “I know how hard she works for me. My goal is to grow up, buy her a car or a house and send her on a trip somewhere she’d like. Then I would pay back all the people, including the scholarship people, who helped. I want to pay off what I owe.”
Lee said she couldn’t believe it when her son told her he’d won the scholarship.
“It was better than winning the lottery,” Lee said. She currently works from home. “I’ve always been sorry to David for not being able to give him everything others had, and I always felt he needed mentoring. He got here all on his own.”
If she has a hope for David, it’s that, no matter what path he ends up taking, he become a source of aid and inspiration to those around him.
“I want him to feel fulfillment,” she said. “I want him to become a person who helps others.”
David’s own wishes are not too far off from his mother’s.
“For kids who are in the same situation as me, I just want to tell them to not give up,” David said. “Because in the end, you’ll appreciate what you have gone through.”