The Lesson of Chris Kwak

August 13, 1993

"It doesn't matter where you live," said Chris Kwak, the young man from Pioneer City, a public housing project in Severn, who heads to Harvard in a few weeks.

For Chris, that is undoubtedly true. Buoyed by his own drive and intelligence, blessed with a supportive family, molded by an East Asian culture that stresses hard work and educational success, he probably would have achieved his goals no matter where he grew up.

Nonetheless, we find it remarkable that someone who spent his childhood in such a troubled place could become Meade High's valedictorian, come within a whisker of a perfect SAT score and win a full scholarship to one of the nation's most prestigious schools.

That is not all. This talented teen plays the violin, serves as a translator for elderly Korean immigrants, works at a dry cleaning store, volunteers at a homeless shelter and participates in a slew school activities. What a wonderful change from the usual stories of despair and homelessness that come out of communities such as Pioneer City, stories of young people without aims or goals or family support.

Pioneer City's problems never swallowed Chris. His family settled here in Anne Arundel County 13 years ago to escape the hopelessness they faced in their native South Korea. Although they never had much money, they arrived with hope in their hearts for a better future and an education for their sons.

For them, Pioneer City was a place of beginnings, not dead ends.

In most ways, the Kwaks' circumstances are no different from anyone else's in any other public housing community. If anything, they are more difficult; the Kwaks knew very little English when they arrived, and Chris's father is disabled and cannot work. Yet they have always enjoyed the energy and optimism that comes from knowing you can change your life, no matter where you live or how little money you have.

This is the lesson Chris Kwak and his family have to share with the rest of Pioneer City and every other place like it.

Pioneer City remains the end of a troubled road for too many people. Somehow, they need to learn to see it as Chris Kwak does -- as a place to start from on the way to a better life.

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