As they commission during a pandemic, the three international relations majors remember what brought them to USC while looking positively toward the future.
Between the three of them, they speak nine languages. All have family ties to Asia and grew up in the United States. This year, they graduated with degrees in international relations from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and commission in the U.S. Air Force, launching military leadership careers in the midst of COVID-19.
Inkoo Kang, Sean Liew and Jong Su Kim are among a handful of USC Air Force ROTC cadets that comprise the Class of 2020. The three friends are so close that they can make each other laugh with just a gesture or an expression. They share a worldview that is both positive and realistic, yet each has his own story to tell.
Inkoo Kang: Curious, ambitious and grateful
When he was 4, Kang’s parents brought their son and daughter from South Korea to New York, then Kansas City. When he was 13, his father returned to South Korea for professional reasons.
“That sort of ripped the Band-Aid off, made me grow up fast and forced me to lead from a young age,” Kang said. “Before he left to go back to Korea, my dad told me I was the man of the house. I couldn’t let the family down, and that still resonates.”
Admitted as one of the first ROTC Warren Bennis scholars at USC in 2016, Kang is modest about his list of impressive accomplishments. He is fluent in three languages and recognized as a distinguished graduate of Air Force ROTC, an honor reserved for the top 10% of all graduating cadets in the U.S. He has a slot to become an intelligence officer, and he will head to San Angelo, Texas, after he’s commissioned.
“I’m curious, I’m ambitious, but I’m also very grateful,” he said. “Very few have the education I’ve had or the parents I’ve had. I’m going to serve the greatest military in the world. It’s something I believe in.”
Sean Liew: Piloting in a time of instability
Born in Hong Kong, Liew emigrated with his family when he was 4.
“I struggled growing up. Kids made fun of me, as kids do, because I didn’t speak English. That sort of thing allowed me to become the person I am now,” he said.
Liew joined Air Force ROTC after he enrolled in a community college. Two years in, he transferred to USC.
“It brought together the best of both worlds: USC and my dream of flying,” he said.
The only one of the trio who will train as a pilot, Liew starts training in the fall. He believes the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed both the world and his future as a service member.
“It’s more than just a disease or a virus,” he said. “It will have long-term destabilizing effects. Being in the military, we’ll be at the forefront of that, making sure the United States stays safe, and we take that very seriously.”
Jong Su Kim: At a young age, understood the value of the military
Unlike his two colleagues, Kim began life in the U.S. Born in Yuma, Ariz., he moved with his family to San Diego as a child. His father worked in Mexico, and the two saw each other only about once a week.
“Growing up, my dad would say, ‘Repeat after me: I’m joining the military,’” Kim said. “That sort of thing can have the opposite effect on a kid. But my parents’ view of the military is a bit different because service is obligatory in Korea. It’s not viewed the same way, not valorized like it is here.”
A bit more reserved than his two colleagues, Kim, who also earned a master’s in geospatial intelligence, spent his first year at USC “ROTC free.” He started his college career with an interest in public service and diplomacy, then started considering Air Force ROTC after talking with a friend in the Naval Academy.
Like Kang, Kim is headed for Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas to train as an intelligence officer.
“Most of my graduating friends are scrambling, and they don’t know if or when they’ll have jobs,” he said. “Commissioning in the midst of COVID, we’re entering one of the more secure workforces because it’s tied to national security. This is what we signed up for.”
By Ron Mackovich