When KJ Park, ’11, got the news that her acceptance to UC San Diego had been rescinded, she didn’t punch a hole in her wall or go for a 20-mile run in the middle of the night or even break down and cry over a tub of ice cream.
No, Park simply got on a plane to Germany for a year, studied at community colleges for two years and applied to UC Berkeley as a transfer student majoring in chemical engineering.
Her story is now the kind of triumph often trumpeted in The US News and World Report. But it started out more like the stories usually found only on College Confidential.
Park, who first came to Country Day from Korea in the middle of her freshman year, was visiting her parents and brother in Seoul when she received the devastating letter from San Diego at the end of August.
Her admission was rescinded because she didn’t think she needed to report the grades from two semesters before because that was during the time she would have been in middle school in the U.S.
She had the option to appeal and send a letter to plead her case but decided not to do that.
“I wasn’t that excited about San Diego anyway,” Park said, in a casual tone.
“My first choice school was Rice University, and I didn’t get in, which was heartbreaking. I didn’t really want to go to San Diego.”
Former college counselor Patricia Fels tried to reason with the school but had no success.
“There was no negotiating with (the UCSD admissions office),” Fels said.
“I called the person, and she said that not only could they rescind her (Park’s) admission, but they could put it into the computer that she could never apply to a UC again. But they weren’t going to do that because she did this inadvertently.
“At that point I realized I wasn’t going to be able to talk them into admitting her.”
It was too late to apply to community college because all the schools had already started.
So, at her aunt’s suggestion, Park chose to study abroad for a year in Munster, Germany.
“I just googled ‘study abroad in Germany’ and picked the first thing that popped up,” Park said, laughing.
Park planned to stay in Germany just one semester but decided to remain for a whole year because she liked it so much.
“I feel so grateful and so blessed that I didn’t go to San Diego,” Park said.
“Living in Germany and learning the language was the best year of my life. I had a great host family who are like my second family now, I speak three languages which is awesome, and I’ve always been interested in learning different cultures, especially after moving to America from Korea.”
It wasn’t all that surprising that Park adjusted well in Germany, according to her friends at Country Day.
“First of all, (Park’s) probably one of the most outgoing and social and friendly people I know,” Lauren Taylor, ’11, said.
“She is friends with everyone and friends with people who have all different personality types.”
But the time spent in Germany was more than a chance to let loose and have fun. In high school Park said she felt like her focus was on making friends, having fun and learning English, but her focus changed while in Germany.
“I had a lot of extra time to think about who I am and what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
“I realized I really wanted to study hard and get into a good school, and I think that’s when I set my sights on Berkeley.”
After returning from Germany, Park faced yet another obstacle. To get the community college classes she wanted, she had to attend three schools: Sacramento City College, American River College and Cosumnes River College.
And because Park’s goal was to get into Berkeley’s school of engineering, she had to take a lot of science and math courses, including the notoriously difficult organic chemistry.
At least it is for most people.
“KJ said to me, ‘Organic chemistry is so fun and interesting, I just love it,’” Fels said.
Not only did she take classes, but she also had a long list of extracurriculars: member of the Sac City tennis team, president of the German Club, TA for her German and chemistry classes, worker in a research lab at UC Davis, founding member of the Chemistry Club at Sac City and English tutor.
But after completing the requirements to get into Berkeley and earning straight A’s, she applied and was not accepted. She was waitlisted at UCLA and admitted to UC Irvine.
Again Park couldn’t be discouraged. She sent a letter of appeal, but she also drove to Berkeley and talked to the transfer adviser for chemical engineering.
“I talked to him about how Berkeley was my dream school, and he said that almost no one gets in through appeal,” Park said.
“I said I better write a good appeal.”
Several weeks later, Park was admitted, and Fels was amazed.
“Chemical engineering is really, really hard to get into as a freshman, and it’s even harder to get into as a transfer,” Fels said.
“One time I said, ‘KJ, how do you manage to stay so happy?’ And she said, ‘Every time I’m happy I write it down in a book.’ And she gave me a little notebook like hers. She said, ‘If you write down every time you’re happy, you can go back and read what you wrote down later on.’”
For her part, Park recognizes that at only 21 years old, she’s had a crash course in the ups and downs of life.
She noted that a large motivating factor in her move to the U.S. was the collapse of much of her father’s business in Korea. Moreover, while she was in Germany, he fell ill and was hospitalized, but she could not visit him.
“It’s definitely different than normal people’s lives at my age, you know?” Park said.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a hundred years old.”
Park now plans to go into cosmetic engineering. If her plans change, it’s easy to imagine her being disappointed for a little bit. But then she’ll surely dig out her book of happy thoughts and set off on her next adventure.
Previously published in the print edition on Sept. 16, 2014.