COLUMBIA — DJ Chung stood in front of Hickman High School's class of 2005 feeling a sense of peace and accomplishment. His four-year journey to reach his goal had come to an end, but he had not done it alone. With the help of many, he had become one of four valedictorians.
The experience led Chung, 25, to write "Build Like an Ant: How My Mom Helped Me Become Valedictorian," in which he talks about having the right attitude to succeed, setting your mind to achieving a goal and looking forward in order to realize your goals.
In the 34-page book published last year, he shares the lessons he has learned through relationships, primarily with his mother, Won Sook Chung.
When Chung was 5, he immigrated with his family from Korea to the United States. He said in an interview from California that his parents stressed the importance of education in his life. "Mama Chung," as he affectionately calls his mother, wanted him to accomplish big things and take full advantage of every opportunity — something she felt she had not done for herself.
Once, when he was comparing himself to other high school students, his mother told him not to look to the left or look to the right, "because you're just shaking your head no,"DJ Chung recalled. Instead his mother stressed the importance of looking straight ahead, he said.
Then there was the time when he was a little boy trying to learn how to spin a top. He couldn't figure out how to do it, but his mother practiced with him over and over and kept telling him he would be the best someday. That taught him perseverance, he said.
In a recent interview, Won Sook Chung, who lives in Columbia, recalled telling her only child when he a student at Grant Elementary School that she wanted him to strive to be the head of his class someday. She told him she wanted him to get the best education he could so he could go to a good college and get a good job.
It stuck with him, she said, recalling that when he became valedictorian, he said, "Look, mom, I did it."
DJ Chung said that as he aged, he relied on his relationships with his older friends to help him understand what he would need to do to become valedictorian and how to apply to colleges. Because his parents were immigrants, he said, they weren't familiar with how to do that in the United States.
Chung said that even though he thought he wasn't the smartest guy, he wasn’t afraid to go out and seek answers to questions. If he didn’t know something, he figured it out, he said.
Tonya Mirts, his exercise physiology teacher at Hickman, thinks Chung's attitude and personality set him apart. He had a magnetism that other students respected and enjoyed, and he was always asking questions, she said.
"I had to be ready to go because DJ was there ready to learn," Mirts said. "He just was the consummate student all the time but with a tremendous amount of personality.”
Chung excelled outside the classroom. He was president of the National Honor Society at Hickman. He was on the varsity golf team at Hickman for four years and won individual golf competitions, as well as helped his team place in state championships. He was captain his senior year.
His golf coach, Clark Swisher, who sees Chung whenever he's back in town and considers him family, said Chung had a calm demeanor and the ability to persevere.
"When he gets to be 90, he probably won’t have a wrinkle in his face — just because you never see him scowl, you never see him raise his voice, you never hear him get angry," Swisher said, smiling as he recalled Chung. "He looks at things and is able to take good things out of everything."
Won Sook Chung said her son's ability to listen and apply the things he learns has made raising him easy. She said she thinks their ability to communicate with each other has strengthened his values.
"He’s a hard worker, and I think he’s a very balanced person — I think I like him better than my husband," she said jokingly.
Although DJ Chung said that balancing school, golf and a social life have taught him several things about himself, he said the best advice came from his mother. In his most challenging times, one piece in particular stayed with him: her "build like an ant" lesson from which his book gets its title.
"My mom just said, 'DJ, you need to build like an ant,'" Chung recalled. "I was like, 'Mom, what does that even mean?' She’s like, ‘When an ant’s house gets destroyed, it doesn’t complain, it doesn’t whine. It just goes and picks up a stick and starts rebuilding a house.’
"I think it’s been a huge lesson for me because it shows it’s OK to be upset and have your moment, but at the end of the day you have to move forward," he said.
After he graduated from Hickman, Chung earned a bachelor's degree in economics and graduated with honors from Duke University. He now lives in San Francisco and is a founder of Bluekey LLC, which builds iPhone apps.
He published the book in 2011 through a company called Hyperink. It is available in paperback and e-book editions. The book will be used this year at the School of the Epiphany in San Francisco for a study skills class.
Chung said he still applies his mother’s lessons. They are timeless, he said, and useful for anyone who is trying to accomplish any goal.
"I think writing a book really made me realize how much my mom really knew me," Chung said. "I just feel really blessed. It’s clear that she is someone that understands me and obviously wants the best for me. I think my hopes and dreams are aligned with the hopes she has for me."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.