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TMCNet:  Student born in Korea making waves

[May 23, 2013]

Student born in Korea making waves

May 23, 2013 (Odessa American - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Taewhan Ko is known as a "hyoja" -- what Koreans call a "very good son." His mom and dad know him as a very responsible young man, able to balance school and playing well; he doesn't care for himself first, but cares for others. Their son has never disappointed them, his parents say.

He's also known as "David," the name his friends and teachers at Permian call him.

David -- the hyoja -- is brilliant, a go-to student, absolutely smart, faster than a calculator and ambitious, his teachers say.

David -- the hyoja and the intellect -- is also caring, reliable, mature and doesn't give his parents grief, others say.

David -- the hyoja, the intellect and the role model -- is also keen on enjoying life to the fullest.

"I would never tell anyone to study for your life," David said on Thursday night before the academic awards banquet at the MCM Grande FunDome, where he would later be introduced as the valedictorian of the 2013 class carrying a 5.67 GPA and awarded a half-dozen medals. Ko was dressed in a suit and tie that night, sitting next to his mom Juill, with younger brother Kilwhan "Andrew," dad Junglim and grandmother filling in the seats at a table near the lobby.

The Ko family's story has been seen before: The tale of immigrants coming to America for greater opportunity. Eight-year-old David, 4-year-old Andrew and his parents moved from their home of Daegu, South Korea, to Los Angeles in 2003. His aunt was working in the city and the young boys began attending public school and learning English at One Step Learning Center under the guidance of Sunny Chang, whom David remains in contact with. David says it's there where he learned the most as a child, and where Chang easily recalls the impact David made.

"We speak high of him here. He had so many excuses he could have used to put aside his studies, but no. He was always there," Chang said by phone in Los Angeles, where she is still the director of the learning center.

She remembered how responsible David was at 8 and 9 years old, taking his younger brother on public transit to the center every day and helping his parents translate once he knew English. He's the family translator still today. At 9 years old, he was calling the electric and water companies to set up service at their home, going to the bank with his uncle or ordering food at restaurants for his parents, David said.

"They give me the money to pay bills. It's second nature," he said.

The putting others ahead of himself is a theme in David's life. He's held jobs in his family's businesses around Odessa (the family moved to Odessa for work around 2007) and for the last two years, David has worked at H-E-B as a sampler at the sushi kiosk. All of those hours of work were done to help his family.

"We keep talking about this story," Chang said, retelling when David was in fifth-grade and during an ice cream fundraiser, he offered up his only dollar bill to his brother, instead of buying an ice cream for himself.

Andrew, also a brilliant student at Nimitz at the top of his class, joked about David: "Like every other older brother, he's always picked on me," he said before getting sentimental. "He's really responsible. Whenever I need anything, he will be there. He's the best brother I could have." David, 18, will continue his journey at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall, planning to double major in computer engineering and computer science. It plays on his love of technology. He loves gaming, whether on computers, PS3 or Xbox, and working with technology as often as possible. David plans to become a programmer, and if you didn't believe a computer programmer could be altruistic, you'd be wrong.

"I want to hack the hackers. If someone hacks your game ... I would be hacking the people that hacked you," he said, smiling.

He said when it happened to his brother he wanted to help. "It got on me," he said.

Paying for UT Austin does pose some challenges, because David is in the U.S. under the DREAM Act so currently he can't benefit from federal or Texas financial aid, but rather is relying on private scholarships. Nonetheless, he still earned a half-ride to UT Austin, one of the largest universities in the country.

As for Chang -- an educator for 20 years -- David made such an impression on her that she will be flying to Texas to attend his graduation. She said it speaks volumes because of the hundreds of graduations she could have attended over the years.

"He can soar very long. He has ambition. He's a good Korean son. To get out of poverty ... it just amazed me. It's just amazing to see his life. Always sacrificing," Chang said.

--Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.

___ (c)2013 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas) Visit the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas) at www.oaoa.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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