You mean we don’t all think alike?
College was the first time it ever occurred to me that growing up in Fayetteville might have had an impact on the way I think. I was sitting in Dr. Kleinman’s sociology class at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the class was discussing affirmative action. One of my classmates from western North Carolina called the quotas unnecessary.
“If you’re poor and work hard,” she offered, “you can get a scholarship and make something of yourself.”
I thought she was the most ignorant person on the planet. Or she had never met anyone poor. The rest of the class aligned on one side or the other, and much heated discussion ensued—to Dr. Kleinman’s satisfaction. At the end, I’d had two realizations. One, I realized that in part, my classmate was right. My mother is a prime example of this classmate’s bootstraps theory. Two, where you’re from makes an indelible impact on who you become and how you think.
My father was transferred to Fort Bragg in 1976, two years after I was born. Fayetteville surrounds Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. Army installation in the world. Without a doubt, growing up in a military town and being raised by a first generation Korean immigrant shaped my values. I am optimistic and resourceful and that comes directly from growing up with diversity and my mother’s work ethic.
Take me out to the yard sale
To say my mother is “hard-working” would be a gross understatement. In spite of having less than an 8th grade education, my mother became a successful property and small business owner. My mother quickly learned how to buy and rent small houses to young military families and took my father’s idea of opening a thrift store and ran with it.
Every Saturday morning, my mother woke me up to accompany her to yard sales. She circled newspaper ads and we drove to neighborhoods all over Fayetteville to buy used furniture. My favorite neighborhood was VanStory Hills, because there were better toys in that affluent area. After buying the furniture, my mother would resell it at “Browsers Corner” to soldiers from all over the world. All of them shared the need for a bedroom suit or crib or some basic home furnishing.
Soldiers make up the majority of the 175,000 people who live in Fayetteville. Fort Bragg is the town’s economic engine. Desert Storm shuttered many mom-and-pop businesses in 1991, because so many soldiers were deployed. Other businesses you’ll see while driving through Fayetteville include the expected used car lots, barber shops, pawn shops and strip clubs.
I attended Westover Senior High School, which is the closest secondary school to the base. Our student population was 55% African-American, 45% Caucasian and 5% “Other”. My classmates included students from Korea, Vietnam, Puerto, Rico, the Philippines, China and—most exotic to me at the time—New York.
Additionally, Westover is situated near upper middle class and lower middle class neighborhoods. Some of my classmates were alums of Fayetteville Academy, the only private school in town. While some of my other friends worked from the time they turned 16 to afford items like high-top sneakers they needed to play on the girls’ basketball team. The diversity at Westover exposed me to people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, though it never occurred to me at the time.
My high school friends and I used to joke about Fayetteville and never wanting to go back. The truth is I’m glad to have grown up there. I would not be the person I am had I grown up anywhere else. The lesson Fayetteville and my mother taught me is one of diversity.
Today, the work I do involves using the Internet to connect high school students to North Carolina employers. Basically, my company helps students create career plans. One of the facets I love about my job is that students in low-wealth communities can talk to business professionals at companies throughout North Carolina.
On a weekly basis, I interact with people in different professions, from Vice Presidents of Human Resources, to state representatives, to middle school teachers and counselors. Each group of people requires a different communication style and sensitivity. Generally speaking, business executives appreciate succinctness, whereas educators appreciate familiarities. My work experience taught me the importance of communicating with people in their preferred style of communication. But growing up in Fayetteville, has given me the desire to create that connection with others, regardless of their background.
I work for Futures for Kids because I feel strongly every student has the potential for success. It’s difficult to pinpoint why we are who we are. I believe growing up with people from different neighborhoods, states and countries taught me that regardless of our backgrounds, we all share that same potential.