This weekend, Sharon Park ’19 ’20MS travels 900 miles for what will appear to outsiders as a five-second walk across the stage of the Addition Financial Arena.
Like the rest of the 1,700 participating graduates expected to attend this special debut celebration, Park qualified for her degree in 2020, but the Florida Board of Governors last year required that all universities in the state of Florida are hosting virtual debut ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Honestly, I thought the university talked about a make-up ceremony last year because they didn’t have the heart to say ‘canceled’,” says Park, who earned a master’s degree in science and materials engineering.
Many graduates of the 2020 spring, summer and fall courses shared his skepticism and continued with their lives and careers. Park moved to Baltimore to begin his doctoral research at Johns Hopkins. A year passed. Then an unexpected email arrived in her inbox, announcing the possibility for UCF 2020 graduates to reserve a seat in the arena for an in-person ceremony. Fittingly, it would take place on the Friday of the reunion weekend.
“At first I must have thought about leaving my research team at Johns Hopkins,” Park says, “but then I thought about my parents.”
Make the most of an opportunity
Every returning graduate has a personal reason to come back to UCF for that brief moment on stage.
Park and his younger sister, Yuri, grew up in Apopka. Park remembers that his mother was not at the breakfast table most of the morning. After school, she and Yuri went straight to their father’s dojang, where he taught taekwondo. Park was finishing her homework in the dojang, training with her father, and going home with him. It has become his daily life.
“I didn’t quite understand why my mom was gone for so many hours every day,” Park says.
She also wondered why her mother insisted so much on academics.
“Mom helped me with my homework as much as she could after dinner. I could tell that our education meant a lot to her.
Park’s prowess in math and science developed so quickly that his mother ultimately could only cheer him on, while his father instilled focus and discipline in taekwondo. Park has used every bit of it to excel. She was accepted into UCF’s Mechanical Engineering program and secured a place in the McNair Scholars program, which paved the way for her to post graduate work.
In addition to learning formulas and equations, Park developed a critical thinking ability during her undergraduate studies, and she has finally started to realize something about her parents. She knew the basic facts: that her mother and father immigrated from South Korea in the early ’90s, as Park puts it, “for the reason that any immigrant does, because they considered the United States like a land of opportunity ”. With a changed perspective at UCF, she also appreciated what they had left behind.
“They sacrificed everything they had known in Korea: their work. Their relationships. Their language, ”she says. “They literally had to start over when they got to the United States”
Over the past 20 years, South Korea has developed rapidly both socially and economically. But when Hyun and Mi Young Park lived there, they faced limitations. They grew up in poor communities and had limited access to higher education. At that time, only one in three high school graduates in Korea was going to university. As recently as 2009, 50% of the country’s women were employed and 6% were enrolled or had completed higher education.
This explained why Mi Young spent such long hours in a beauty store and why Park and his sister spent so much time in the dojang. The land of opportunity wasn’t just for mom and dad.
“They wanted to make sure that my sister and I could have what they never had growing up – the best education possible,” Park says. “Now I realize that’s all they were thinking about. “
Worth the wait
Park received her BS in Mechanical Engineering at a UCF graduation ceremony in 2019. She knew it would be emotional for Hyun and Mi Young to see their daughter walk across the stage, representing the concept of opportunity transformed. in reality.
“I wanted this moment for them so badly,” Park says.
In the days leading up to the onset, however, her grandmother fell seriously ill. Hyun, Mi Young and Yuri had to travel to South Korea. Park walked alone at graduation before joining the family for her grandmother’s final weeks.
“It was a very emotional time for reasons we hadn’t anticipated,” she says.
Over the next 18 months, she focused her concentration and discipline on Masters studies in Materials Science and Engineering. She became the first in her family’s line to earn a postgraduate degree, while also winning the Order of Pegasus from UCF – the most prestigious and important award a student can earn at the university – which would reserve him a front row seat in the August 2020 graduation ceremony.
“This graduation part was going to be a surprise to my parents.”
The surprise turned into another disappointment when COVID-19 forced the postponement of the ceremony with no guarantee of when a make-up ceremony would be scheduled. A few weeks later, Park left to begin his research into the materials used to build planes and spaceships at Johns Hopkins.
“It’s better than I thought,” she said. “I work in a lab with scientists who motivate me to be a better researcher and a better person.”
In fact, when she briefly considered returning to UCF for graduation, her research team insisted that she go. They don’t even know the whole story of Park’s family.
“The ceremony is for mom and dad. I want them to know in my moment on stage that I’m telling them, ‘I’m doing everything you’ve done for Yuri and me. Look now. Your sacrifices were all worth it. “
“I’m grateful to UCF for keeping a promise,” she says. “For me, I look forward to my mother’s galbi-jjim [braised beef]. But the ceremony itself… “she pauses for a few seconds.” The ceremony is for mom and dad.
“I want them to know in my moment on stage that I’m saying, ‘I realize everything you’ve done for Yuri and me. Look now. Your sacrifices were all worth it. “