16-year-old graduate is more than just brains

FIU’s youngest known graduate has found his passion and a career to match.

Sky Choi’s usually sunny demeanor transforms into one of focus and concentration when he practices forms, or “poomsae,” in taekwondo. One of Choi’s favorite forms is the Koryo. The form is said to symbolize “seonbae,” or a learned man. In poomsae, mastering the physical motions is only part of the equation – demonstrating the proper attitude is just as important.

Like the learned man he channels in his taekwondo practice, Choi, 16, is both brain and heart. One side cannot succeed without the other. In his chosen career path – teaching – he has found the balance between the two.

But that path is a relatively new one for Choi. He enrolled in FIU full time at age 12 as a sophomore double major in physics and math, inciting a firestorm of local media. When most kids his age were starting seventh grade, he was a full-fledged college student. He eventually traded in his double major for an Asian Studies degree, which he completed this semester.

The change of majors was not an easy decision. Expectations have always been high for Choi.

“People have always expected me to cure cancer, to become a doctor, to be some rich person,” Choi says. “One of the things I keep telling myself and that really drives me and helps people understand is: Wouldn’t you want the smartest people to teach the kids?”

Like many others, his parents were skeptical at first – was this a true change of heart or an act of teenage rebellion? It took some time, but Dana Choi realized it might not be adolescence driving Sky’s decision, but genetics. Intellect was not Sky’s only talent.

“[My husband] opened up his own taekwondo school and he’s learned everything from English to how to run a business all on his own,” Dana Choi says. “What makes him successful is he’s a phenomenal teacher. And Sky inherited that gift. He is a really good teacher.”

Joyfully teach

Sky Choi has been honing his skills as an instructor for several years. Shortly after starting college, he went from being the master’s son to a taekwondo coach. Now, he teaches all levels at his father’s school and runs the school (with his mom present) when his father travels as a taekwondo referee.Sky Choi Taekwondo Studio

“At first I was just a kid, teaching kids,” Choi remembers. “But then around 13, I really saw the value of teaching, and it really affected me.”

Choi’s decision was affirmed during a study abroad program with the Honors College. Students spent 11 days of their winter break trip giving English classes at a college in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

“[Cambodia] was the first time I really did teaching, and that was teaching English, which is not my best subject,” Choi says. But the local guide told him, “‘Do something fun. Just joyfully teach.’ And that’s what I did.”

Fueled by passion

It’s no surprise that taekwondo led Choi to his career choice. He has spent 4-5 hours a day, 5-6 days a week, at his father’s taekwondo school not far from the Modesto A. Maidique Campus since the age of 4. It’s in his blood – his parents met when his father was his mother’s taekwondo trainer in New York. They are a family of black belts: his mom, Dana, is a second degree, Sky is a level higher with a third degree, and his father, Byung Sam, is a sixth degree master.
Sky Choi FIU's youngest graduate

A naturally driven achiever, Choi tested for his black belt at age 9, and has been Junior Florida Champion in sparring three times. He recently took home three medals from the Florida State Taekwondo Championship for poomsae, and qualified to compete in the World Class Division at the national level.

“Because of my martial arts, I’ve really developed focus and determination,” Choi says. “I remember I hit a wall when I actually had to study for physics; it was a really tough thing because I never did that. With my taekwondo, I just focused.”

That focus has led to an exciting year for Choi. He rang in the 2013 new year in Cambodia with his classmates (and his mom, along on the trip because he’s a minor). He competed in the U.S. Open of Taekwondo, the only international taekwondo tournament held in the states. He got his driver’s license the day after his 16th birthday. And he earned his bachelor’s degree.

Next, he will pursue his master’s in mathematics education through Harvard University’s Extension School. He also has a nonprofit in the works. He started his first – helping immigrant Iraqi children – when he was 12. Based in Cambodia, Project Riyen, from the Khmer word for learning, will be focused on providing school supplies and training teachers.   

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