2017 Winner

Hyunkyung Yoon

Capitola, CA

Embrace the Unexpected!

One-story buildings painted in different shades of pink, huge murals that clearly reflected Hispanic culture, students dressed in white, gray, or black clothes following the dress code, a bean burrito served as lunch which I had never heard of before, and the sharp stares from students the moment I walked in the classroom are some of the images that are engraved on my memory from the first day of school in the United States.

At the age of eleven, my family immigrated to the United States from South Korea, leaving everything behind. When we landed at the San Francisco International Airport, I was overwhelmed by a sea of people from different countries, speaking different languages, and dressed distinctively different. Having spent my entire lifetime in a homogenous society, this sight caused great intimidation rather than excitement.

I was the only Asian at my middle school, surrounded by hundreds of Hispanic students who spoke English, Spanish, or both. Due to the language barrier, I barely kept up with classes, using pictures and hand gestures. Class participation and public speaking became my worst nightmares after several embarrassing miscommunications with teachers in front of the entire class. I endured numerous lunches, hiding at the corner of the school away from the laughters and away from the silent but sensible prejudices. The sense of unbelonging grew stronger as the time passed. My name was too hard to pronounce; I spoke completely broken English with a thick accent that nobody could understand, and I dressed differently. I was nothing like them, and I hated that. 

The thought of giving up nearly consumed me, but I refused or rather I could not let myself. I could not just waste the opportunities my parents have provided me by devoting their entire lives. I could not become another burden on their shoulders while they struggled to maintain our family, living in a small bedroom in my aunt’s garage.

From then on, I committed myself to read books. Lots of books. At first, sentences looked like a set of odd puzzle pieces that did not complete each other, but as I continued to read, some of those pieces came together and created partial images that allowed me to roughly grasp the meaning. The more I read, the more complete the pictures became, and noticing differences in my linguistic ability motivated me to further challenge myself by reading higher level books.

A few months before I graduated, a counselor recommended I apply for the Humanities Academy, rigorous English and Social Studies classes to prepare for AP classes. Despite my skepticism towards my English ability, I surprisingly got accepted.

Indeed, the English class was incredibly challenging. But learning how to carefully craft sentences and composite persuasive essays significantly improved my language skills. Moreover, I forced myself to escape my comfort zone and socialize with other people to overcome my fear of speaking. In that class, I was fortunate enough to meet some genuine friends who did not judge me for my background or fluency in English. During sophomore year, I further challenged myself to try a variety of things that I never had courage to. I joined the school tennis team although I had no prior knowledge of how to play tennis at all; I joined new clubs and also student council. As I became more active and involved, I found myself having small talks with strangers that I had never met before, realizing that I did not have to prepare what I was going to say before I spoke.

Ever since my first encounter with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I have always dreamed of designing and constructing an innovative and unique bridge that connects people and their ideas.

Through the years of challenges and barriers I encountered in my life, I have learned to embrace my insecurities such as my unique name, different ethnic background, and the thick accent. I have grown to understand that these aspects of me complete my identity and make me stand out as an individual. I am no longer afraid to speak Korean in front of people and share my culture because they have transformed me into who I am now: a stronger person who is not afraid of challenges and can truly embrace the unexpected.

With this faith and confidence in myself, I seek to enroll in a 4-year university as a first-generation college student next fall. I hope to fulfill my intellectual curiosities in mathematics and civil engineering. I will strive to achieve my dream of building a bridge. Ever since my first encounter with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I have always dreamed of designing and constructing an innovative and unique bridge that connects people and their ideas. Furthermore, I hope to give back to my community, which has inspired and encouraged me to dream of higher education during the time of tears and struggles. I plan to help and share my knowledge with younger students that are in similar situations as I was by creating a club to visit local elementary and middle schools to not only provide academic supports but also to build true life connections with students.

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