The Catalyze podcast: SEVEN Talk, by Sophie Cho ’23: “Searching Beyond the Well”
Today’s episode is a recording of a SEVEN Talk from the 2022 Alumni Forum. This talk, given by Sophie Cho ’23, is entitled, “Searching Beyond the Well.”
More about Sophie
Sophie Cho ’23 of Raleigh received her bachelor’s in public policy, business, and statistics from Carolina. During her time as a scholar, she interned with the U.S. House of Representatives and a sustainability consultancy with Amirah Jiwa ’15, sharpened her Korean langauge skills in Seoul, and embarked on various Lovelace Fund for Discovery projects, from meeting her Morehead-Cain Mentor, Dele Carroo ’99, in Los Angeles to taking singing and acting classes. On campus, you could find her singing with The Loreleis, acting in a student film, working with Kenan-Flagler’s Community, Equity, and Inclusion Board, or in the Foundation’s scholar lounge writing a paper. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at email@example.com.
A couple days before the start of my senior year this August, I was stuck in my thoughts. Thoughts about the past three years, my summer in Los Angeles, a postgrad job offer I had just accepted, and my final school year ahead. And my contemplation was rooted in questions such as, “Am I doing enough? And in the things I’m doing, am I contributing meaningfully? And simply, am I enough?” So I went to my mom, as I often do when I get stuck. And for context, my mom and I are really close. She is the first person I turn to for dating advice. That’s how close we are. But I have a complicated view of her in that she and my dad moved our family from Seoul, South Korea, to Raleigh, North Carolina, leaving behind everything they had and everyone they knew in the hopes that my brother and I would do better than they did, which I held as a common hope among immigrant parents, but also as any parents hope for their child. So I carried an overwhelming obligation to make my parents’ immigration, their sacrifices, their pain worthwhile. I had to make my parents’ only seeing their mothers once in a decade worth it. I had to make my mom missing the death of her father worth it. I had to make all of their graveyard shifts, their small and big sobs and heartache in this country and as working parents, all of it, everything, worth it. And this was concurrent to my other mission in life to prove my nuance, worldliness, and worth to myself and everyone else.
So back to the story. I’m with my mom in her bed, and I’m telling her that even though I met amazing people this summer, built cool things, and now I have this job for after graduation, I still feel so lacking, restless, and scared that I have to do more, but don’t really know what it is I have to do.
Then my mom gently starts sharing this Korean proverb about a frog in a well. And in this proverb, a happy little frog is content within the walls of its well, clueless to what’s outside. But one day, a visiting sea turtle tells this frog of the great big, blue, beautiful expanse of the ocean, and the frog is then suddenly ashamed, crafting these new requirements to be happy and restless, to leave and find its worth in the world outside. My mom proceeds, telling me that this proverb is used in Korean to encourage people to seek the experiences, networks, and places that expand their worldliness, nuance, and worth.
And I’m thinking ,“Okay, Mom, I get it. I’m the little frog in the well. Ribbit rabbit.” But I did relate to this frog. I moved to Raleigh when I was six. And in the beginning, while a Jason’s Deli cheesy baked potato was the most marvelous thing in the world, something that I thought I was born to just eat, by my fifth baked potato, the marvel of my town in Raleigh wore off. I soon knew all the bends of the roads. I could locate any item at my local Harris Teeter within 15 seconds. And I had never missed a Sunday in my 13 years attending the first Korean Baptist church by my house. And as I got older, reading the books of Korean American authors like Chang-Rae Lee, who was brought up at Exeter and went to Yale, I was intensely aware and ashamed of being in my well, specifically the working-class Korean community of Raleigh. I was restless to leave.
Then the Morehead-Cain came along, and Ann visited me at my high school, and knighted me as a scholar. And while I couldn’t be in the Northeast, where I thought culture lived, it provided me an opportunity to metaphorically keep one foot in the well—but also literally, because the old well is right outside, right—while using the financial support to safely venture out and find my worth, finally, through the summers and the Lovelace Fund for Discovery.
So that’s what I did. I went to Seoul, Los Angeles, Alaska, interned across sectors, traveled, met people in the top of their fields, anything and everything, to see this greater world, and to finally claim my worldliness, nuance, and worth. But while I was at these places, doing the things, meeting the people, I still felt like that damn restless little frog, simply incapable of meeting the unclear, yet increasing requirements to be content with myself. And my mom snapped me out of my reflections by asking me, “Okay, so then what happens when the frog finally leaves the well?” And I said, “I don’t know, what happened? I’m sick of this metaphor.” But she said something so unexpected, that the frog isn’t any happier, but is overwhelmed by the endless things to do and see, and is now striving to overcome and be the best at everything, all at once. And it’s still deriving its worth from the world around it, when really the frog’s worth as a frog, and its capability for happiness, was within the frog all along.
And she’s saying all of this, and I’m just sobbing so ugly, because here’s my mom, you know, for whom I thought I had to work twice as hard as my peers to prove not only that her daughter was worthwhile, but that her pain and her sacrifice was worthwhile. But she continues on, saying that even if I had never gone to school, and I had stayed to work at my dad’s restaurant in Raleigh, I would have been just as worthy. That even if I had gone up north to a school that my grandmothers in Korea could have more easily bragged about to their friends during poker, you know, I would have been just as worthy. And that her only hope for me and her duty of love, which manifests in her lifetime of sacrifices for me, is not that I would do better than she did, but that simply that I would know my worth, as always being within me, inextricably and unconditionally mine. And that it will always be mine, unrelated to the experiences, networks, and places that I had been chasing my whole life. And since that evening in August, as I’m still trying to take that in, I find that the gradual lifting of those burdens propels me to pursue the experiences, networks, and places not in fearful obligation anymore, but out of gratitude.
Gratitude to my maker, gratitude to my family, gratitude for the privileges I hold, the opportunities such as this, that I have been given. And now I can see these experiences, networks, and places, not as the source of my innermost worth, but as chances to help shed light onto what’s already within me.
So I leave you with all of this in humility and gratitude, acknowledging that this room contains some of the biggest achievers and strivers that I will ever know, that from the moment you simply came to be, you were worthy. All you have to do in life is walk in that.