When Hee Yeon “Scarlett” Hwang came to the United States over three years ago, she was a Korean city girl lost in the rural community that surrounded Northwest Christian Schools.
Unable to speak English and desperately missing her family, Hwang said, she spent the first month of her time in Spokane in her room, crying.
But gradually, the homesickness subsided and her English improved, making way for a new Scarlett Hwang.
“My mom didn’t want me to go, but my dad encouraged it,” she said of the move from Seoul, South Korea, to Spokane. “I knew he was sad, but I knew I would have to move out someday, so I just did it. I still miss them a lot, but I met a good family here. This is like my second family.”
Hwang refers to Ken and Dinah Underwood as Mom and Dad, and her senior portraits hang on her host parents’ walls next to pictures of their other children – Hannah, a freshman at Whitworth, and Sarah, a junior at Northwest Christian.
Once she bonded with her host family, the rest of the transition to American life got easier. But it wasn’t until Hwang was two years into her schooling at Northwest Christian that she finally felt comfortable speaking English.
“In the beginning, you can’t understand or talk at all, then after a few months you start understanding but you can’t respond,” she said. “It was so hard. I could barely even say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ”
The language barrier was a constant battle, particularly in science classes, riddled with complex terms and jargon, but Hwang never asked for special treatment. Instead, she piled on the difficult classes, taking chemistry, AP biology and AP statistics, and received an award for being the top AP bio student her junior year.
“That was really the turning point in my American life,” she said. “I realized what I could do.”
Now, Hwang is graduating from Northwest Christian with a 3.98 GPA – quite the feat for someone who couldn’t speak English when she enrolled.
Her success in the classroom translated into Hwang’s daily life. Hwang didn’t just come out of her shell, she shattered it, Dinah Underwood said.
“When she goes out with us, people think she is an American kid,” Underwood said.
While Hwang hasn’t shed her South Korean heritage – she goes back to see her family every summer – being thought of as an American makes her proud.
“I like it because it shows that my English has gotten really good,” she said. “We had some new teachers this year and they all thought I was born in America.”
Following graduation in June, Hwang will study marketing at either State University of New York in Buffalo or the University of Washington.
She plans to start out in the business world before eventually moving back to South Korea and breaking into politics.
But Hwang admits that her indecisive nature may cause a change in her course of study, or even her career plans.
This, however, is no concern to her second family.
“Whatever she wants to do she can accomplish,” Ken Underwood said. “I’ve seen that in her. She has a good attitude and gives it her all. Wherever Scarlett sets her sights, she will do well.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter