Scholar Spotlight: Aissatou Sow, DPHHS

The Korean Culture and Language Program is at the very foundation of Democracy Prep. It is one of the ways in which we provide our scholars with a unique opportunity for an in-depth immersive experience for development of identity, cross-cultural awareness, and language proficiency. Most importantly, it enables our scholars to step outside their comfort zone, learn something entirely new, and have fun while doing so!

While scholars expand their knowledge of Korean culture and strengthen their proficiency in the language, they are also able to participate in competitions and apply for scholarships for American students engaging in Korean language and culture curriculum. And that’s exactly what 9th grade scholar Aissatou Sow of DPHHS did!

Every year, the Kyung-Uhn Scholarship Association organizes the Kyung-Uhn Scholarship Speech Contest on Korean History, Culture, and People and this year’s topic was Korea’s response to external influences in the late 19th/early 20th century. Aissatou did a phenomenal job on her speech, “When Whales Fight, the Shrimp’s Back is Broken,” which discusses the differences between North Korea and South Korea and how these distinctions came about. Her extraordinary work got her 3RD PLACE in the competition! Watch her speech here.
And that’s not all! This year, Korean Education Center in Los Angeles (KECLA) announced their 2021 Korean Class & Korean American Culture and Society Class Scholarship Essay Contest, which is an opportunity for Korean Class, Korean American Culture and Society Class, and After School Korean Class students to win scholarships for their outstanding work. On April 18th, 2021, Aissatou Sow submitted her essay for this competition and won 3RD PLACE, awarding her the Hunminjungeum Scholarship of $100!

We are so incredibly proud of Aissatou for this amazing achievement and we’re excited to share her beautiful story with the world! Check out the topic and her essay below.

COVID-19 Pandemic has affected our lives in every way, changing the way of our lives. Among many affected areas in your life, how has your Korean language study been affected by the pandemic? In what ways did it change, and how did you adapt to the new environment to overcome the challenge? Discuss your own experience.

제 이름은 소우 아이사투입니다. 저는 서아프리카 지역에서 미국으로 이민을 온 한 이민자 가족의 딸입니다. 저는 학교에 가는 것을 좋아합니다. 저는 학교에서 공부하고 운동하는 것을 좋아합니다. 저는 초코렛을 좋아합니다. 저는 동생들과 함께 시간을 보내는 것을 좋아합니다. 저는 열 다섯 살의 평범한 소녀입니다. 그러나 제 꿈은 평범하지 않습니다. 저는 외교관이 되고 싶습니다. 저는 예일 대학교에 가고 싶습니다. 저는 제 꿈을 하나 하나 준비할 수 있는 고등학교 생활을 기다렸습니다. 저는 제 꿈이 매일 매일 학교에서 나무처럼 자랄 수 있다고 생각했습니다. 그래서 저는 학교에 가지 못하고 집에서 중학교 졸업식을 하였지만, 그래도 참을 수 있었습니다. 고등학교는 옛날처럼 평범하게 학교에 가서 공부하고 운동도 하고 친구들도 만나고 점심도 먹고 선생님들과 교실에서 공부를 할 수 있을 거라고 믿었기 때문입니다. 하지만 팬데믹때문에  제가 생각하고 기다렸던 일들이 하나도 일어나지 않았습니다.

[English translation of the above text]: My name is Aissatou Sow. I am the daughter of an immigrant family who immigrated to the United States from West Africa. I like to go to school. I like to study and exercise at school. I like chocolate. I like to spend time with my siblings. I am an ordinary girl of fifteen years old. But my dreams are not ordinary. I want to be a diplomat. I want to go to Yale University. I waited for high school life to prepare for my dreams one by one. I thought my dream could grow like a tree at school every day. So I couldn’t go to school and had my middle school graduation ceremony at home, but I was able to endure it. It was because I believed that in high school, I could go to school and study, exercise, meet friends, have lunch, and study in the classroom just like in the old days. But due to the pandemic, none of the things I thought and waited for happened. 

It was August 14, 2020, when I received an email about an announcement that was going to determine the start of my journey for high school. After all, I coveted to be back in-person for the start of high school because I was already worn out from doing virtual learning for the last four months of eighth grade.  The fact that we had to do our 8th grade graduation (stepping up ceremony) virtually was totally unexpected. So it would at least bring me joy if we had the opportunity to start back in-person, for an unforgettable start of a new chapter, of my academic career. However, I would never imagine that my first day of high school would be virtual because of the circumstances that we live through. I’m among one of those people who never thought that a pandemic could touch so many parts of my life, including one of the most transitional times of my life. So my stomach felt like it got hit with a ton of bricks as soon as I received the news that we were going to continue with virtual learning until it was safe enough to get back to class. Furthermore, I was really afraid to start high school considering that not only has the pandemic given me enough anxiety to deal with, but the thought of taking Korean didn’t settle well with me at all. 

I recount the days I used to complain to my mother and plead to her to exempt me from taking the class, even though I was unequivocally aware that she would express over and over again that it was beneficial to get outside of my comfort zone and try something new. However, I absolutely wouldn’t buy that claim. I vehemently argued many times of the uselessness that was going to come with learning Korean. Though this was easily refuted every time not only by her but through my inner faithful self. I had faith in my heart that God does something for a reason to make it play a role for a bigger plan in the future. The main reason why I was not comfortable and willing to learn about the Korean language is on the grounds that I feared making missteps. One of the biggest fears I have in life is failure. This overwhelming fear that I had of failure kept me from trying something new like Korean, that could have easily become something that I turn out to enjoy. Because I almost let my fears get the best of me, I almost risked the chance of missing out on something that would have brought an abundance of joy. Most especially, I could miss out on a valuable learning experience of a lifetime.

We as human beings have to accept the fact that failure is a part of life. Failure is a great way to achieve greater success. As soon as I was able to accept that reality and overcome my fear, I was able to truly fall in love with the complexity and beauty of the Korean language. Of course it was hard for me to adapt to the new environment, but eventually I was able to overcome it by being willing to take risks and not being afraid of making missteps. Even so, I was able to adapt to the new environment by always trying my best even when I felt like giving up. For instance, I make good use of my resources by using my Korean notebook to dedicate at least ten minutes of my time in the day to practicing my Korean writing skills and reviewing new vocabulary. I also maintain the courage to go to tutoring sessions even if I don’t need to because I know that learning never stops. There is always something new you can learn to strengthen your knowledge. I try not to be afraid to ask questions when I am struggling or even as an opportunity to learn more. Always nourish the chance to expand your knowledge and to learn something valuable when you least expect to.

 Have you ever thought that an infectious disease would turn into an all out intense pandemic? Did you think that an intense pandemic could actually have an impact on our lifestyle? Well if you didn’t, I’m guessing you were surprised by the blistering effect that Coronavirus had on vital aspects of our lives. Forcing us to stay in quarantine, adapting to virtual learning, wearing masks, social distancing, and etc. These are all the complete opposite of normality for us.  I’m among one of those people who never thought that a pandemic could touch so many parts of my life. My Korean language study has been entirely affected by the pandemic because I never got to fully interact with my classmates and teachers. I missed out on so many in-class experiences ranging from big to small, like raising my hands to answer questions asked by the teacher, greeting  my friends in the halls, laughing and talking about my day at school with my parents, making new friends, and so much more. As we  persevere through these hard times, the thing that keeps a light in my heart to keep on endeavoring is a compelling quote that Hellen Keller once stated. “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”  Having negativity only brings negativity to your life. No matter how tough these times could be, it’s always crucial to wake up every morning having optimism and faith in your abilities and vision for life. 

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