When she opens the door of her family’s modest Northridge home, dressed in a gray T-shirt and jeans, Monroe High School valedictorian Yoo-Jean Chi looks like an ordinary teen-ager. But then she opens her mouth and all illusions of ordinary disappear.
“I’d love to be chief justice of the Supreme Court,” said the 18-year-old matter of factly. She ticks off the route to the chief justice’s chair as casually as the days of the aaweek: from Stanford University to Yale Law School to the nation’s highest court.
“I see that as an ultimate goal. I’d like to play a vital role in this country.”
It’s a country that Korean-born Yoo-Jean didn’t know until the third grade, when she moved to the San Fernando Valley from South Korea with her parents and a younger sister. But it’s a country she is getting ready to embrace wholeheartedly, when she becomes an American citizen next month.
“I already feel like I belong,” said Yoo-Jean, a student in Monroe’s law and government magnet. “But I wanted to make it official. I know I’ll be living here for the rest of my life. I want to be able to vote and to take an active role in this country.”
With the confidence and articulation of someone much older, Yoo-Jean said her drive for success is fueled by a desire to shape America’s future and to make her family proud.
In South Korea, her family lived comfortably in a modern condominium in Seoul, and she attended a private kindergarten. But for as long as she can remember, big-name American universities were raised in casual conversation and correspondence with relatives in the United States was frequent. It was understood, Yoo-Jean said, that one day the family would immigrate.
“My parents took a huge risk in coming to this country,” she said. “And I know they did it for us.”
But once in America, things quickly fell apart. Yoo-Jean’s father had trouble finding work and her parents soon divorced. Her mother, who had a college degree in political science in South Korea, began working as a cashier in a dry cleaner, and as a bookkeeper and waitress.
“There were times when it was really tough,” Yoo-Jean said. “I felt desperate and hopeless.”
She remembers the beginning: not knowing how to talk to her classmates or to even ask for ketchup at McDonald’s. But she worked hard in school, read Dr. Seuss books at home, and learned English in about a year. Soon she was at the top of her class, speaking perfect English.
“The only person motivating me was me,” she said. “I wanted to make my family proud. There’s still a drive to show my mom my gratitude for everything that she’s done for us.”
Yoo-Jean lived with her mother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment until she entered high school, but her mother owns a card and gift shop in a downtown skyscraper and the three live in a one-story house off a quiet street in Northridge.
Yoo-Jean’s fascination with U.S. law began in the ninth grade, when she learned about the U.S. Constitution. But her admiration of the United States came much earlier, she said, when she began to notice the differences between South Korea and America.
“In Korea, the education system is corrupt,” she said. “It’s hard for poorer kids to get a good education. Here, anybody can do it, even if you are a poor kid.
“I think people have to realize how lucky they are to live here.”