WYOMISSING, Pa. — For some students, finding the drive to finish their studies during the global pandemic and upheaval of the last three semesters has posed a significant challenge. Wooseong “Woo” Cho has faced that challenge head-on — from the other side of the world. He will graduate from Penn State Berks on Saturday, May 8.
In May of 2020, when Cho returned to Korea after the spring semester, he decided not to return to the Berks campus for the remaining two semesters of his academic career. Instead, he finished his education, including his year-long role as a teaching assistant to Catherine Mello, assistant professor of psychology, from Korea.
Cho says that the decision had pros and cons — his body was in Korea while his mind and internal clock were still in Reading. The 13-hour time difference meant that he had to adapt to working all night long to attend his synchronous online classes and to keep his office hours as a teaching assistant. “On the plus side,” he added, “I saved a lot of money on plane tickets!”
Before applying to Penn State Berks, Cho lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, for one-third of his life, having arrived in the United States at age 15 as an international student. He attended what is now Berks Catholic High School, and when it came time to choose a college, he opted to stay close to the town he calls home.
Cho applied to Penn State Berks as a “2+2 student,” beginning his studies at Berks and planning to complete his degree in aerospace engineering at University Park. He thought he was on the fast track to success. High school had been fun and relatively easy, according to Cho — he had learned college-level math while a student in Korea, and he reasoned that since his American curriculum had not challenged him in this area, he’d be a perfect fit for the engineering program.
But the challenges Cho faced when he made the leap to college life were not easily overcome. “I had so much freedom all of a sudden,” he explained. “As I made more friends and met new people, I spent less time studying, which affected my GPA (grade point average).”
Facing dropping grades, disappointment, frustration and depression, he decided to return to Korea at the end of the semester to join the army, rather than continue to struggle in college.
While serving in the Korean army, he was assigned to work with social workers, which he says opened his eyes to the field of psychology.
“Math and science were fun, but I really liked learning how machines operate. Psych was about how and why people act and operate in certain ways, so it was like engineering for people,” he said.
When he was finished with his service, he turned his attention to completing his degree and returned to Berks as an applied psychology major in 2019. He completed his new major in two years, making the Dean’s List every semester.
He explained, “I came back with passion and resolution because I did not want to fail again.”
During his time at Penn State Berks, exploring different areas of the campus via student internships, Cho said he was able to observe the efforts of many people as they worked to make the community a more inclusive and welcoming place. Overall, he said, it was very positive reinforcement to become a better, more mature person.
One example that he gave was the work being done by Sharon Pitterson-Ogaldez, coordinator of diversity and international programs. Cho said that it was clear to him both as an intern for that office as well as from his perspective as an international student that enormous effort is put into making sure that international students and students from diverse backgrounds get the encouragement that they need to be proud of themselves and of their personal identities, as well as affirming their sense of belonging and inclusion.
Moving forward, Cho said he hasn’t quite settled on a job after graduation. It’s been hard to find one that feels like a good fit, and he’s willing to wait for the right job. That’s one of several lessons he said he learned on his long road to graduation.
He offered some advice to his fellow students, stating, “To students who are having a hard time, or trying to find a reason why they need to attend college — I was also lost, in my second year before I went home. I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to go to college and graduate. But this is something I’d tell myself in the past — put some effort into it, and just don’t give up. Be consistent and put your everything into it and you’ll either succeed, or you’ll fail and find another way. But before giving up, try one more time.”