Tell us a bit about your background
Performing my own casual “background check” brings to light some mildly interesting points about my upbringing and patterns of thought. First, because I grew up with little to no financial security, I am at once utterly convinced that the world is about to fall apart and fanatically determined to be optimistic. Second, my parents, who are Korean immigrants, modeled hard work and an unequivocal stress on the benefits of education. Yet the language gap was real and yawning: it led to embarrassment about language and a tremendous fixation on wanting to empower myself through expressive capacities. With Korean being the only language spoken at home, I was placed in a Special Education class on language for the first half of elementary school. By the fourth grade, I was placed in the Honors program at our school. When I was accepted to Duke University (on year-to-year Pell Grants, scholarship monies, and Work Study subsidies), I was once again forced to navigate waters that were entirely unfamiliar to me. Thus, to my mind, at least, education invites—even demands—initiative, hope in progressive ideals, and some measure of bravery.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
Once, on a remote expanse of highway in Texas, my dad taught me to sit up straight and look far ahead when driving. I should focus less on the stretch of road immediately in front of me, and try to divine what was in the beyond. Of course, within twenty minutes of giving this profound advice, my dad was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. I learned how important his advice was as a metaphor for living: focus on the far ahead, but without losing sight of the immediate situation.
What advice do you have for recent inductees and prospective inductees to get involved?
Upon leaving the formal setting of a college or university, and upon settling in a place that is distinctly not a bustling metropolitan area, you may realize how much you might have taken for granted. Beyond that, however, you may start to seek ways to stay connected with a world of learning and creative intellectual stimulation. What you’ll want to seek—and what your liberal arts and sciences education basically prepared you for—is a way for your mind to find satisfying occupation without gross stimulants. That is, you’ll want to be like a “good” or admirable Jane Austen character whom we’re supposed to want to resemble! This means keeping your mind sharp, and supporting organizations like Phi Beta Kappa, ones that indirectly fuel the world’s creative, problem-solving brain trust. Remembering all the while the doctor’s credo, “first do no harm,” try getting involved with organizations that are less partisan and more educational in the most liberal sense: education improves individual lives and “life” in general.
What do you want to learn next?
I’m currently engrossed by a Public Humanities project that I’ve proposed to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The topic—“Dying in an Age of Health”—starts with the question, “Why is there so little conversation about dying and, conversely, so much talk about health?” That is, how do we help each other better face and understand mortality? Can humanities scholars help us do this? Absolutely! I hope to learn through this years-long process how to help general audiences (the public, my fellow citizens) see new ways of grappling with death. It’s what scholars, teachers, and life-long learners naturally do: learn what we want to teach.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
Sadly, most of the mechanisms in our schooling and in our professional lives are designed to make us perform more efficiently. Everything needs to be done quickly. The result? Two loud messages (forget the innate value of curiosity and be blind to the needs of everyone but yourself) and one foggy murmured thought (helping others is a luxury of time and effort you can’t afford). PBK and an arts and sciences education help counter these messages, loosening the hold of “me”-centric training with regular reminders that true dignity in work comes from helping others find joy and deep satisfaction in learning. This desire to see joy in learning is a universal human need, and a liberal arts and sciences education is unique for being direct. It does not try to pass off this value as something else. Learning is joy and joy is learning. Period.
Who has made the greatest impact on your life and work?
There are so many people (writers and theorists, mainly) who continually impact my life and work. However, my Ph.D. advisor at Berkeley, Steve Goldsmith, is extremely easy to idealize as the acme of a well-balanced academic and a wonderful marvel of a human being. I remember he told me that I don’t need to change the whole world with an earth-shattering discovery, but that my contribution is nevertheless very important. He made me recognize that I was a scholar in training, someone already engaging in the world of larger conversations. This might have seemed obvious to others, but I was never quite convinced that what I thought or wrote was of much matter until I worked with him.
Why did you choose to stay involved in Phi Beta Kappa and why is it important to contribute to the Society?
PBK is a fellowship of high academic achievement and, what I didn’t realize until quite a bit after being inducted, that that honor comes with responsibility. In my role as PBK Alumni Association President for our region, I’ve given this an inordinate amount of thought. In every effort I make to bring an innovative speaker to our rural Central Illinois community, I’m acutely aware of how a high-impact talk can help shape the thinking of individuals. I am looking forward to learning about Africana Muslims from our upcoming guest speaker, Dr. Mansa Bilal Mark King (PBK, Howard University), who will deliver our 26th Annual PBK Fall Lecture: “The Invisible Matter: How We Impoverish Liberal Arts Education by Marginalizing Africana Muslims.” This big-thought event—timely and daring—happens on a limited budget, but it is so worth it. The lecture infuses our community with provocative scholarship combined with issues of current and pressing concern to the public that we serve.
Why do you care about the organization’s future?
I care about PBK because it is an organization built on a model of stewardship and progressive thought. How often, and where else, do we have the chance to unequivocally help the collective well-being and reinforce the shared ideal that the pursuit of learning is a good in itself?
How has PBK made an impact on your life?
Besides the much-needed monetary assistance of a PBK scholarship during graduate school, there was a good stretch of time before I realized what election to PBK membership meant. It means recognition of high achievement but it also—and more importantly—means being entrusted with the shared goal of giving back to the public and furthering the cause of the liberal arts and sciences. My membership in PBK and my role as PBK Senator bring this mission to a fine point.
What do you feel is the vision of PBK for the 21st century?
PBK’s ruling motto—“love of learning is the guide of life”—is a terrific one to live by. However, not everyone knows about it, and it is PBK’s vision to help educate the public about the inviolable joys of learning.