From war, poverty to university head

MERCED — Sung-Mo Kang survived a tumultuous time in Korean history to live the dream of a college education.

Kang was born in 1945, the year Korea was liberated from Japan after 36 years of occupation. Five years later, North and South Korea were embroiled in the Korean War, which would last three years.

At the end of World War II, Korea was divided into Soviet (North Korean) and U.S. (South Korean) zones of occupation. In 1948, rival governments were established: The Republic of Korea in the South and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea in the North.

"Korea suffered from that war greatly. There was an increase in poverty. It demolished the whole nation," said Kang, recalling his elementary school desk and chair — a grass mat on the dirt floor.

Kang's mother had three babies during the war. She spent her days raising the children while Kang's father worked at a bank.

The oldest of five children, Kang's first name, Sung-Mo, translates roughly into "castle model structure." He also goes by Steve.

Growing up, Kang said he was influenced greatly by his grandfather.

"He always had great motivation and determination for higher education," Kang said.

In high school and college, Kang lived with other families, tutoring their children. He was interested in engineering, medicine and law.

After the Korean War, engineering was seen as a prestigious and competitive field, which was appealing, Kang said.

Before college, Kang served a mandatory three years in the South Korean military. There he was drawn to electrical engineering while helping a superior with correspondence courses.

Kang then attended Yonsei University, a private campus in Seoul.

In his senior year, Yonsei established a sister-college partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Yonsei offered one full-ride scholarship to a student who wanted to study at Dickinson. Officials chose Kang, and he saw this as his chance.

With $200 in his pocket and a limited English vocabulary, Kang left his family and childhood behind. It would be 11 years before he returned to South Korea.

In Korean culture, the oldest sibling is expected to enter the work force as soon as possible to help support the family, Kang said. He went against the grain, to the disappointment of some family members. Still, he always sent money home, Kang said.

"I knew (college was) the only way to make advances in a family, the economy and social structure," Kang said.

After a year at Dickinson and combined with units that transferred from Yonsei, Kang graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

He would earn a master's from the State University of New York at Buffalo and his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

In New Jersey, Kang met his future wife, Mia, a computer analyst, who also is from South Korea. The two moved back and forth between California, Illinois and New Jersey where Kang taught at universities and rose in the administrative ranks.

"Teaching, in my view, is a great profession. It adds so much to society. It helps prepare young people for the future," he said. " I wanted to teach at a university because I enjoy the research aspect. Every day is fun."

Kang was recruited by AT&T, an opportunity he chose to expand his research base. Most recently, Kang headed UC Santa Cruz's school of engineering. Today, Kang holds 14 patents in electrical engineering and has written or co-written nine books.

He and his wife visit South Korea at least once a year.

Their children enjoy successful careers. Jennifer, 31, is furthering her sociology studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Jeff, 27, is studying business at UC Berkeley.

The Kangs moved into the university-supplied chancellor's house in east Merced the first week in March.

Kang expects to head UC Merced for at least five years. His wife is retired and is learning about the community so she can find volunteer opportunities.

"The community support is enormous," he said. "We cannot hide in this community. There was not a lot of support from the Santa Cruz community. There is a clear contrast."

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