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From high school dropout to U.S. Gates Cambridge scholar

Justin Park dropped out of high school, but he never lost his love of literature and learning. After 20 years as a bartender, bike messenger and military man, Park returned to school at UC Berkeley, graduated — and now has been selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, a top world honor.

Justin Park

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BERKELEY — Justin Park dropped out of high school when he was 16, finding it too confining and thinking he could learn a lot more outside the classroom. For the next 20 years, Park tried his hand at manual labor jobs and the military before returning to school at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he earned a degree — as well as one of the world’s highest honors for a scholar.

Park is one of 40 Americans and 100 students worldwide recently chosen in a tough competition to attend the University of Cambridge in England as 2013 Gates Cambridge Scholars.

The elite Gates Cambridge Scholarship includes support for a full year of graduate studies and is awarded on the basis of the candidate’s academic excellence. There also needs to be a good fit between the scholar and the University of Cambridge and evidence of leadership potential and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

“It’s surreal and unbelievable,” says Park, who hopes to become an English professor.  “I’m still pinching myself.”

Justin Park

Justin Park, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s English Department, has gone from hating school during his teen years to pursuing a Ph.D. Later this year, he will head to Cambridge University as a Gates Cambridge Scholar of 2013. (Kathleen Maclay photo)

For Park, the road to Cambridge wasn’t always so clear. After dropping out of high school, he held a string of odd jobs. He cracked crab at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, worked as a bike messenger, painted houses, washed dishes, waited on tables and tended bar. Through it all, he retained a lofty vision of himself as a poet or writer.

After a couple of years, the Sacramento native decided he wanted to see more of the world and joined the U.S. Navy. During his four-year tour, Park served aboard the USS Rodney M. Davis in Japan and on bases in San Diego and Indiana.

Back home, he resumed restaurant work. But he says his love of literature drew him back to school for a few English classes. He had earned his high school equivalency certificate before joining the Navy, so he enrolled at  City College of San Francisco, where a couple of his professors encouraged him to dream bigger — to transfer to UC Berkeley. Park tried, and made it.

Park acknowledges that the transition to full-time university studies was a bit rough. But he credits the English Department’s Chernin Mentoring Program, which puts new students in a small group of English majors alongside a graduate-student mentor, with pulling him through.

“It’s a great way to build community and get a feel for the major,” Park says.

New students at UC Berkeley should reach out to professors and others to ask questions and get acquainted, he advises: “If you do Berkeley on your own, it’s incredibly daunting and you can easily lose out on the best things Berkeley has to offer.”

Emily V. Thornbury, an assistant professor of English, praises Park. “When he was in my Old English class, he was generous and helpful to his fellow students in an inimitably upbeat, self-effacing kind of way,” said Thornbury. “He’s going to be a wonderful teacher as well as a great researcher.”

Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, chair of UC Berkeley’s English Department, recommended that Park pursue the Gates Cambridge honor, calling him “an immensely talented student of Anglo-Saxon England” who “shows Berkeley English at its best.”

Looking back, Park cautions against dropping out of high school. Instead, he urges students to move toward their dreams, rather than away from their challenges.

“The reason I left high school wasn’t because I didn’t want to learn,” said Park. “It was because I felt I could learn more on my own and that the most interesting things were going on outside the classroom. Of course, now I find plenty of interest going on inside the classroom.”

Park will arrive in Cambridge in September and immerse himself in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies, particularly what the literature about St. Swithun, an Anglo-Saxon bishop, and his posthumously discovered miracles might say about societal attitudes toward the poor, sick and criminalized.

Park will be heading to Cambridge University. The scene above shows the Mathematicians’ Bridge at Cambridge. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

He credits his research interests to his own father’s dinnertime tales of his career as a nurse and of his daily dealings with the sick and infirm, “who most of us tend to shun, but for my father were people who deserved dignity and respect.”

His research also reflects some of the personal interactions he had during his years of work and in the Navy with people on the margins of society.

“Often I found myself confronting assumptions I had made about people without even realizing I had made them,” Park said. “I generally assumed that someone who was homeless had something ‘wrong’ with them — some history of mental illness or drugs…My own personal experiences told me that, sometimes, the individuals on the fringe of any society have the best view into the heart of that society.”

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A list of English Department alumni and what they are doing today:

A spring 2012 video about the Chernin Mentoring Program is online.