FIU’s youngest graduate ever follows his passion into teaching

At 4, Sky Choi was reciting his multiplication tables. At 12, he enrolled at Florida International University. And this spring, at 16, he earned a degree in Asian Studies, the youngest graduate in FIU’s history.

Everyone — and he includes himself in this group — expected him to pursue a career in math or science. After all, this was a child who had begged his parents to leave a friend’s birthday party early so he could finish a math workbook, a kid whose intellectual prowess so intimidated a teacher that she promised him a lollipop if he stopped asking questions.

But Sky, whose given name is Sebastian Hanul Choi (his middle name means “sky” in Korean), likes to defy expectations and follow his passions. So halfway through college, he chose what tugged at his heart and gave him a sense of purpose above all else — something no one had expected him to pursue.

He decided on a career in education.

“When I said I wanted to be a schoolteacher, an elementary school teacher, I got this look,” he recalls with a laugh. “Then it was, ‘Really? Aren’t you wasting your talent?’ People were expecting me to be a millionaire, some hotshot inventing something. It was so ignorant!”

He pauses to shake his head at the reaction. It’s obvious he chafes at the conventional.

“People were boxing me in. I always felt I was being labeled and categorized. But I want to teach because I want to change lives. And anyway, don’t you want the smartest people in the classroom?”

His decision may have baffled his professors, but his parents were not completely surprised. Sky had shown a gift for teaching at his father’s taekwondo studio, where he often coached the youngest students in the Korean martial art.

Still, his parents — his father is Korean, his mother a Miami native — worried that he might regret his change of heart.

“When he first told us, I really had to sit back and think about it,” says Dana Choi. “I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t know if it was teenage rebellion or what.”

But the more she spoke to Sky, the more she thought about her own career. She noticed certain parallels. A white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Holland & Knight, she had often dreamed of chucking the high-powered, well-compensated job to work in the classroom — but had never acted on the desire.

Until she witnessed Sky’s courage to buck expectations.

After she talked it over with her husband, Byung Sam, who owns and operates Doral’s Team Taekwondo, the family set in motion a plan that would transform their lives.

She quit her job, and the family sold their big house in Pembroke Pines. They rented a small apartment in Doral, and moved the taekwondo studio to larger premises. There they opened an after-school program that, as Dana puts it, “isn’t just about helping with homework. It’s about enrichment, about instilling the love of learning.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Dana Choi helped a group of elementary students at various tasks. Two were playing chess, another group was building robots.

Sky, getting ready for a taekwondo class, looked at the gathered children through the window. “I’ve been reading a lot of articles on education,” he says. “I would love to revolutionize the way we teach.”

He then ticks off the names of the good teachers he has had. “You always remember those. They’re a big influence on your life.”

Later, in class, he roams the rows of young martial-arts students, nudging an elbow, lifting an arm, correcting posture. In the front of the room, he models a stance.

“What is this space called?” he asks.

Someone blurts an answer.

“I don’t see anyone raising their hand,” he admonishes.

Sky seems most at home here. He is a third-degree black belt, his mom a second-degree and his father a sixth-degree master. He has been junior Florida sparring champion three times. He began coaching soon after enrolling at FIU, and now teaches all levels. The camp his mother ran and the taekwondo classes kept him busy 12 hours a day over the summer.

“I’m learning a lot of Spanish,” he jokes.

It was the joy he got from teaching at his father’s studio than inspired his career change of heart. The decision was confirmed when he taught English classes at a college in Cambodia as part of an FIU study-abroad program. “I saw what a difference I was making,” he says.

Sky no longer spars, but he does compete in poomsae, a combination of basic actions and movements, or forms, performed against an imaginary opponent. He recently took home three medals in it from the Florida State Taekwondo Championship, qualifying him to compete in the world-class division at the national level.

As for academics, he is pursuing a master’s degree in mathematics education through a Harvard University extension program. “I still love math and physics. I love astronomy,” he says.

When the family was sorting and packing to move from their house to an apartment, he refused to give away his astrophysics textbooks, his mother says. “He told me, ‘Now I want to read them for pleasure.’ ”

Sky admits that it feels good to be considered a genius — or in educational lingo, “profoundly gifted.” He says he has never felt left out, whether it was in the taekwondo studio or playing pool in the game room at FIU. He is friendly in social situations, with a sharp sense of humor and a contagious laugh.

But he adds a caveat.

“Being a genius is not about being smart,” Sky says. “It’s about how you use it to do good.”

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