The first day of high school is a culture shock to most students. There are new classes and students, and unfamiliar halls and classrooms.
But imagine that the freshman had only lived in the area for a short while, and really only knew one word – “hello.”
That was what it was like for Medical Lake High School’s Petra Lee, who moved to the area from Seoul, South Korea, with his mother and sister to find better educational opportunities.
“It seems like I came here yesterday, but I have gone through a lot,” Lee said.
That was a tough school year for Lee, who didn’t have any local friends when he started at the school and missed his friends in Korea.
He said he learned to get through the tough times by setting goals for himself.
His first goal was to learn how to order a hamburger at McDonald’s without any help.
When spring quarter rolled around that year, he tried out for the varsity soccer team and made it. The team proved to be a place for him to learn how to be himself.
“I gained the confidence to talk to people,” he said.
His sophomore year was easier – when he walked through the doors that first day he knew the teachers and he had some friends. But he wasn’t happy with his grades.
He started memorizing 20 to 50 English words a day. He used an electronic translator to help him with English when he needed it.
“I knew what it (a word) meant, but I couldn’t use it in a sentence,” he said.
He was studying hard, and he said he learned to manage his time better, balancing his studies with a social life.
Lee joined the soccer team again that year. As a freshman, he said, he really didn’t know what was going on, but during his sophomore year, he really enjoyed himself. His coaches and the team captains motivated him to be a better player.
“I felt like I was involved in that community,” Lee said. “I felt I was part of the team.”
During his junior year, he knew he was going to have to crank up his study habits to prepare for the SATs. He said one of the biggest goals he set for himself was doing well on that test. He noticed many of his friends started cramming for the test not long before it was scheduled, but he had been studying hard, learning 50 to 100 new words every day during the whole school year.
By this time, he said, he had pretty much overcome the language barrier. He could express his opinion and tell people what he wanted without having to use body language. He could use the words he had been memorizing.
When the results came in, he was very proud of himself. He scored an 1820.
“I don’t know why I was so scared,” he said. “If I knew I could do it as a freshman, it would have been better.”
He pulled up his grades, as well, earning solid A’s in his classes.
He was also named as one of the co-captains on the soccer team that year. The team tied for fifth place in state.
“We were really stoked,” he said.
After Lee graduates Saturday, he plans to attend the University of Washington to study international business relations. He even earned a scholarship to attend.
“That’s God’s work, right there,” he said.
Lee said he is looking forward to the celebration – his father, John Lee, still lives in Korea and is a pastor at a church. Petra Lee said his father will be there for the ceremony.
He credits his mother, Jem Soon Lee, for motivating him to get through school, since it was hard to leave his father and come to a country where she didn’t speak the language. Petra said she has a degree in Korea, but worked in a restaurant here to improve her English.
He said he thinks the trip to America was worth it, now that he’s settled and preparing for his future.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “I can get what I want.”