For Chung Park, music was his saving grace.
Raised by a single mother along with two siblings in the big city of Chicago, the UCF Symphony Orchestra director began going down a dead-end path in high school. Life at home was chaotic, and he didn’t like school.
“I felt aimless,” he says. “My compass wasn’t focused in the right direction.”
That was until his music instructors helped guide him back on track.
Park is now an associate professor of music, director of string music education and director of symphony and chamber orchestras in the College of Arts and Humanities. But beyond his day job, he’s also the education coordinator of A Gift For Music, a local program under the umbrella of A Gift For Teaching, founded on the idea that all children should have access to the life-changing benefits of a quality music education regardless of their socioeconomic status.
All the kids that A Gift For Music serves attend an Orange County Title I elementary, middle or high school or qualify for free or reduced lunch.
For Park, this program is personal.
“I know the power of music,” he says. “It can keep kids in school who may otherwise fall off the map.”
Over the past four years, he’s spent most of his Saturdays conducting free orchestra practice for about 100 students. Behind the scenes, though, he’s orchestrated much more; he’s also created a seamless pipeline from UCF to A Gift For Music.
He teaches college students and then places them in instructor roles in the program, where students learn how to play string instruments. It’s a win-win; students earn pay and real-world experience, and the organization has an endless pipeline of eager instructors who help expose the younger students to college – something that children from underserved communities don’t always have.
“The chance to learn from Chung and give back to A Gift For Music is one of the reasons I’m going to UCF for graduate school in the fall.” — Cesar Olmeda
“The chance to learn from Chung and give back to A Gift For Music is one of the reasons I’m going to UCF for graduate school in the fall,” says Cesar Olmeda, a bass player, who got involved with A Gift For Music when he was in third grade at Ventura Elementary School. “Without A Gift For Music, I wouldn’t be where I am right now as a musician.”
Olmeda entered A Gift For Music as a violin player. He was introduced to bass as he progressed from the free after-school weekday music lessons to the Saturday orchestra practices. He is just one of hundreds of students that A Gift For Music has seen go on to college.
About 90 percent of graduates of A Gift For Music go to college, says Park, even though students from Title I schools — where at least 40 percent of students are from low-income families — are less likely to advance beyond high school. In 2016, about 20 percent of dependent undergraduate students in the United States were from low-income families, according to the Pew Research Center.
“A Gift For Music provides a sense of security for these kids. It’s a place where they can talk about ambitions, good grades and can be around like-minded people,” Park says.
During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May — and every month — Park recognizes the importance of representation.
“Life is sometimes easier when you come from certain backgrounds. It’s so important that there are people of color in prominent roles because if we don’t exist then people who come after us don’t think they can do it,” Park says. “I get chills just thinking about it.”