Work lands whiz kid in Harvard Meade valedictorian credits his parents

August 08, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

Let's start by debunking rumors that say Chris Kwak, the 1993 Meade Senior High School valedictorian who makes his home in the Pioneer City public housing project, is getting a full ride to Harvard College and got a near-perfect SAT score.

His parents will pay $30 this year as Chris begins studies in astrophysics, with the rest coming from Harvard and other funding sources. Only his math SAT was perfect; he got 710 out of a possible 800 in English, and he has the grades and accolades that you'd expect with that.

This is the opportunity that Hyung "Chris" Kwak's parents were seeking when they left South Korea for Severn in 1981, when Chris was 6. The reward for excellence is attending one of the world's most prestigious institutions despite having an annual family income about $10,000 below Harvard's $26,700 yearly tab.

"I thought if you do your best, if you have a good character, you can go anywhere," says Bong Kyu Kwak, Chris' father, who has been out of work since 1988 because of a disabling intestinal disorder. His mother, Myung Hwa Kwak, is a machine operator.

"Very few kids who grow up here go to college," Chris, one of 38 Harvard-bound freshmen from Maryland, says of the public housing community where his parents pay about $450 a month for a four-room townhouse. "It doesn't matter where you live, how much money you have. You can have success. I want people to at least see that."

OC Chris' list of accomplishments and activities sounds like Super

teen. They range from participating in a mentorship program with the state Department of Natural Resources to playing violin, taking part in a batch of school organizations, volunteering at Sarah's House for the homeless, translating for elderly Korean immigrants, working the cash register at a dry-cleaning store, tutoring.

"He's got all the qualities you would expect a kid to have to go to Harvard on a full scholarship," says his guidance counselor, Jeff Feldman.

The housing project has been home since 1981 when the family arrived in the United States. When the Kwaks thought of moving two years ago because of crime in the area, Chris asked them to stay.

"Living in an environment like this, not having luxuries, it's been an opportunity. I think most people don't see it that way," Chris says. "I

believe we are rich as a family."

Chris credits his parents and their East Asian culture with instilling in him and in his brother good values, self-reliance, a belief that education will bring success and the drive to attain such lofty goals as a Harvard education.

Chris' brother, Young Kwak, is starting his junior year at the Johns Hopkins University. So far, his education has cost the Kwaks $1,500; the rest is scholarships.

The emphasis on education is ingrained in many East Asian cultures, where the most prestigious upward mobility is achieved through educational successes that reflect well on the family, says Bonnie Oh, an East Asian historian and assistant dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland College Park.

.` When Chris started first grade

at age 7, nearly all the English he knew came from a few months of "Sesame Street," but soon he and his brother competed to see who could read the most library books.

"When I was young, I brainwashed myself," he says. "I heard echoes: 'If you study, if you work hard, you will be successful, you will go to a good college, you won't have to worry about putting food on the table.' "

Sometimes, Chris says, he has felt detached from his family in this struggle, as he has done so much alone. He will be among the last of his friends to head for college when his family piles into their 1985 Buick on Sept. 10, and so his last weeks at home will find him with few companions. He says he doesn't mind.

5) "I can wait," he says, "for Harvard."

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