When I ask my Dad about his childhood, he has little to say. He says he grew up poor in a small Koreatown in rural Manchuria. His father was a logger. He was the youngest of seven children. That, to him, is pretty much all there is to tell.
But there’s much more to his story. With support from his family, he moved to Seoul in 1955 – just two years after the end to the Korean War – to attend college. In Seoul, he met several Americans who encouraged him to dream bigger and move to the United States. There, they told him that you could receive a world-class education. There, intelligence and hard work mattered more than connections or your family name. One of these Americans, a generous Minnesotan, bought my Dad a plane ticket to the U.S.
After a journey that took nearly three days, he stepped onto U.S. soil on January 20, 1961 – the day John F. Kennedy was sworn into office. In Seattle, waiting for his connecting flight to North Carolina, he witnessed President Kennedy’s inaugural address on television. Like millions of Americans watching that day, he was inspired when he heard JFK ask what we can do for our country and what “together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Those words led him to a career in public service. First, though, he knew he needed an education. Working full-time during the day and attending classes at night, he graduated from Wake Forest in 1963, became a U.S. citizen in 1974, and completed his PhD at Temple University in 1979.
In 1983, he founded the Korean Community Development Services Center in the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia. Originally established to help newly-arrived Asian immigrants adjust to life in their new country, its mission evolved over the years to address the needs of clients from diverse ethnic backgrounds – from African American to Hispanic. The Center now provides a wide range of free services to its clients – social services, legal advice, after school programs, career and technical education programs, a neighborhood revitalization project, housing counseling and development, and an early learning center.
I spent my childhood observing my Dad serve low-income, minority clients in Philadelphia. He always underscored that people who lead privileged lives have an obligation to help provide opportunities to those who do not.
Nearly 50 years after my Dad witnessed JFK’s inaugural address, on January 20, 2009, I witnessed President Barack Obama deliver his inaugural address. Today, I am privileged to carry on my Dad’s work at the Education Department under Secretary Arne Duncan, who has focused our efforts on providing a world-class education to our nation’s students. During the Secretary’s tenure, the Department has helped secure funding to save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, increase Pell grants, raise academic standards across the country, prepare students for the jobs of the future, and focus support to help transform struggling, high-poverty schools.
This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’ll be honoring people like my Dad, whose story and commitment to public service has been an inspiration to his son and others.
Don Yu serves as a Special Advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.