From flunking classes to becoming valedictorian: How this Korean dug deep to overcome his obstacles

seneca college
Before Korean-born David Jeong became valedictorian, he was dropped out of high school in the US. Source: David Jeong

Studying abroad offers a host of benefits, from widening one’s worldview to developing a sense of independence to expanding one’s international network. These long-term benefits are precisely why David Jeong’s father decided to send him off to Texas as a teenager.

At 16, the Korean native was lonely, homesick, and depressed at a high school where he was the only international student. Jeong dropped out of high school after failing two classes that same year.

“When my father asked if I wanted to study in Canada instead, I decided to give myself another chance,” he tells Study International. This time, there were fewer expectations and pressures — which led to Jeong flourishing in his last year of school in Toronto. 

high school dropout

Jeong having lunch with Seneca College President David Agnew. Source: Seneca College

Choosing Seneca College 

The vibrant province, said to be 11 times bigger than South Korea, was his oyster. Possibilities seemed endless in a city where hundreds of cultures coexist, and Jeong took control of his narrative by running for student council president, serving the student body, and creating the school’s very first yearbook as its chief editor. His efforts did not go unnoticed — he became valedictorian of his class when he graduated.

“All of my extracurricular activities in high school resulted in offers from the universities I applied to. However, I no longer wanted to burden my parents financially, so I chose to attend Seneca College and transfer to a university after,” he says.

As the largest college in Canada, Seneca College had its perks but what really spurred the now 25-year-old to attend the institution was its affordability. The tuition is almost half of what other Canadian universities cost, and it will still lead to Jeong’s long-term goal — an opportunity for permanent residency.

Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, Seneca College provided the ex-valedictorian with a comfortable space to call his second home. “Canada, and Toronto in particular, are renowned for their respect for and celebration of diversity. You don’t feel left alone living in Toronto because regardless of where you come from, you’ll always find friends from your country or at least where you’d like to belong.”

high school dropout

Jeong (back row, second from right) posing with the Seneca Student Federation President and Board of Directors. Source: Seneca Student Federation

Digging deep during a tumultuous time

Jeong’s life, as he puts it, was full of ups and downs. Just when he thought he had it all figured out in his first year at Seneca College, news from Korea broke him. His mother was diagnosed with cancer and it quickly became one of the most stressful times of his life. The pressure, financial burden, and stress got to him — so he took the next flight to Korea.

Lost and unaware of his purpose at the time, he joined the Korean Air Force as a military police officer from 2018 to 2020. While it was a pleasure to serve his home country, Jeong knew that it was time to go back to school. 

Picking himself up from this turbulent time wasn’t easy, but he went back to Seneca College with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I ran for the student election to support my community, hosted the Seneca Sustainability Hackathon to provide opportunities to students by cultivating partnerships with leading global corporations and represented Seneca in Toronto City Councillor Shelley Carroll’s Youth Council,” he says. 

Jeong also worked not one, but two part-time jobs while studying. He also signed up for five volunteer positions that he hoped would bolster his CV, but it took up more than 13 hours of his day. “My Microsoft Teams calendar is jam-packed with meetings and tasks. I only completed my assignments and projects after I spent the night watching recorded online lectures,” he explains.

Now, he works for the registration department at Seneca College to assist students. His will to serve the community never diminished — which was why he was recognised by the college as worthy of the Seneca Cup, the most prestigious award a student of Seneca College can receive.

high school dropout

In the US, Jeong dropped out of high school. In Canada, he became a valedictorian at his high school and a recipient of the Seneca Cup in college. Source: David Jeong

Turning over a new leaf in Canada

Working and studying simultaneously was challenging but rewarding. Every Sunday night, Jeong would plan his upcoming week before going to bed. “Time management and task prioritisation were critical because if I began compromising the quality of one work due to another, things could fall apart like dominoes,” he says.

Seneca College had taught him how to pull through. “During my final semester, I experienced student burnout twice and had no time for self-care. I’ve developed a coping mechanism, though, and my tolerance level has increased significantly,” Jeong says.

It is never easy to live in a foreign country as an international student, but the support of his professors, managers, and senior management made the process a rewarding one. A chance meeting with a professor named Maria McIean also added to his student experience.

“Professor McIean listened to me and encouraged me to never give up. Even when I left Canada for military service, I kept in touch with her. She wasn’t just a professor, but also a lifelong mentor who taught me how to stay resilient,” he says.

When asked if he would recommend others to study abroad, Jeong had only this to say: “It’s helpful if you can discover a clear reason why. Why give up a comfortable life in a country where there’s no language barrier? If you can answer this question with no hesitation, start planning for your future now.”