Kelli Young
The (Canton) Repository

NORTH CANTON, Ohio (AP) _ Philip Kim stood before the nearly two dozen juniors and seniors gathered for his morning global information systems class at Walsh University.

“By a show of hands, how many of you have a high school diploma?” Kim asked.

The students cast curious glances at each other, trying to make out why an assistant business professor would begin the semester with such an obvious question. Timidly, every student’s hand went up.

“Well, believe it or not, you’ve done something academically that I have not done,” he said. “I am a high school dropout.”

It’s an annual ice-breaker that Kim uses to tell his students that he doesn’t care whether they’ve been known as a slacker or a 4.0 student, because he doesn’t believe a person’s past defines them.

“Regardless of your background, this semester is a fresh slate for you guys,” he tells his students.

Kim was born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, the son of Korean immigrants in a home where English was a second language and Korean food and customs trumped American culture.

He was the youngest of two children by two years. His sister, Grace, was, in his eyes, a model Korean immigrant: She got perfect grades, played the piano and followed all the rules.

Kim didn’t want to follow the model. He wanted to eat pizza and play the guitar. He wanted to be more like the other kids who went to his mostly white, suburban school outside Philadelphia.

“I was always the black sheep of the family,” Kim said. “I just totally went off the rails. I was not ready for those expectations.”

Kim, who remembers being taunted for the shape of his eyes and having more bullies than friends, dreaded going to school. He remembers ditching his first class as a first-grader, heading on his bicycle to a nearby arcade instead.

During his senior year of high school, Kim missed 72 days _ more than one-third of the school year. He would show up for the first class to get marked as present and then leave for the mall.

“There’s no way I could have graduated,” he said.

School officials tried to get him to class, even sending a truant officer to his house. But his parents, who owned and operated convenience stores, gas stations and diners, never were home. Even when the school sent home a certified letter about Kim’s truancy, it was Kim who translated the letter to his parents.

On the day his classmates walked across the high school auditorium stage to receive their diplomas, Kim recalls sitting on his parents’ couch at home watching TV and the clock. He had become a rare statistic; only 2 percent of Asian students in the United States drop out of high school, national figures show.

“I was a mess,” Kim recalled. “I thought my future had passed.”

As the gravity of his decisions began to settle in, Kim’s father decided they needed to talk. Kim expected the worst. His father had ruled the house as a disciplinarian and highly valued education.

Instead, he said, “You made your choice. Nobody can undo what you’ve done.”

He told his son that he faced a choice: He could work 70-plus hours a week like his parents or try college and pursue what he really wanted to do. Either way, he was an adult now and on his own.

Kim said it was the push he needed to get off the couch.

“To me, it was like giving me permission to get back up again,” Kim said. “That was a pivotal moment for me.”

Through the help of his school’s guidance counselor and the phone book (this was pre-Internet), Kim found a community college that offered the tests for a GED certificate, which is the equivalent of a high-school diploma. He passed on his first attempt.

“I could take tests pretty well, but I didn’t like to show up for class,” he said.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Kim suffered from having too much independence and quickly fell into a partying lifestyle. He also didn’t know what career he wanted, switching from pre-med to sociology, then computer science, and then back to sociology because he discovered that he liked interacting and helping people.

He graduated in 2000 with a C average, but quickly realized that it was difficult to find a job in the sociology field. He enrolled in a nine-month program at a Pittsburgh computer learning center to take advantage of the mass hirings that were happening due to Y2K and soon after found a job at as an information systems auditor for a regional accounting and consulting firm.

It took him only two years to decide to return to the classroom. While still working full-time, Kim enrolled at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh to pursue a master’s degree in information systems.

“I knew if I wanted to advance in my career, companies were looking for people with advanced degrees,” Kim said. “It was purely a career- advancement move.”

It was during graduate school that Kim found that education could marry his love of helping people with his business and technology-driven skill set. He began to excel in class, and soon started teaching night classes as an adjunct professor at Westmoreland County Community College near Pittsburgh and at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

In 2007, Kim rose to the level of vice president of information security at S&T Bank in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he was responsible for protecting the mid-sized financial institution’s information.

It was the kind of title he had aspired to obtain. Yet, he found something lacking.

“There wasn’t an opportunity for me to impact lives,” he said. “I felt like if I do my job well, really well, all that amounts to is that the bank is more secure and that people don’t lose their money _ which is important, but it’s just money. But in teaching, if I do my job great, students’ lives are impacted for years, perhaps their whole lives.”

Upon earning his doctorate from Robert Morris University in 2010, Kim was ready to change careers. He immediately received two teaching job offers, one at a university in Pittsburgh and one at Walsh in North Canton.

Kim said he ultimately chose Walsh because he believed he could make a difference at a smaller college.

Carole Mount, dean of Walsh’s DeVille School of Business, said Walsh chose Kim because he fit the college’s culture.

“We have a strong expectation for close student interaction, and he had that,” she said.

Mount, who headed the search committee that hired Kim, said his lack of a high-school diploma never was a factor.

“We ask them to present their credentials and transcripts. We do not even go back to high school, assuming if they have a doctoral degree from an accredited institution that they have a high school diploma or equivalent.”

She said while Kim’s credentials were good enough to get him an on-campus interview, it was how he interacted with the students that won him the job.

“We were very impressed with his teaching demo,” Mount recalled. “We could tell that when he was in front of the classroom that he was a good instructor and that he could connect with students.”

Kim, now 37, a husband and father of two adopted boys, says he often shares the lessons he has learned as former high-school dropout with his students at Walsh. He emphasizes that they need to move beyond past mistakes, that they should focus on doing the little things to become more successful.

And that they need to show up for class.


Information from: The Repository,