Hee Young Ryu
Not many face the problems that Hee Young Ryu did in the
1980s. She came to the United States from her native South Korea as part of an
arranged marriage. It didn't work out.
"All I ever wanted to be was the Confucian ideal of good wife and wise mother," she recalled. "Instead, I found myself turned out on the streets of Atlanta with my two children. My son was 3 years old, and my daughter was 6 months old."
Ryu said that facing the world alone in a foreign country scared her to death. "I had nothing: no money, no job skills, no English. All I had was my will to survive and the determination that I will never let anyone control my life again."
The lack of language skills hampered her through what she remembered as "painful" divorce proceedings, but Ryu did learn that she had certain rights in the United States that she didn't have in Korea. After three years, she won custody of her children and discovered "a new American dream within myself--I wanted to help others like me."
Ryu enrolled at DeKalb College (now GPC) and credits her business law professor, John Bachelor, for "planting the dream of being a lawyer in me. He believed in my academic potential and encouraged me to pursue a career in law."
After transferring to Agnes Scott, where she earned her bachelor's degree in history, Ryu studied law at the University of Georgia and passed the bar exam in 2002. Since then she has worked for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, specializing in cases that involve poor immigrant women.
"The thing I cherished most about GPC is that, unlike a big college institution, the classes were taught by professors themselves and no teachers' aides," Ryu said. "This close interaction with teachers helped boost confidence in me and created an emotional safety net."
Ryu remembered ESL teacher Karen McKinney telling her, "Hee, if only you could see what I see in you." She also gave history professor Randy Finley credit for giving her a new perspective on the world.
Today, her son is an accountant and her daughter is pursuing an engineering degree at Georgia Tech. When Ryu got engaged the second time, she and her fiancÚ arranged it themselves.