The pain was unbearable. A gaping cavity had young Jun Kyung Ko’s lower back molar throbbing. So in the bathroom of his South Korean home, Ko took a kitchen fork and gouged it out.
There was more to come. Living in a single-parent home, Ko could not afford to go to a dentist. So when his other lower molar became cavitied and painful, it too was dug out with a fork.
“It was painful; a lot of bleeding,” Ko recalled. “But now that I look at it, I can just laugh. Maybe it was meant to be.”
Today, the Wright State student and Air Force first lieutenant is bound for dental school. He is finishing up his Post-Bac Certificate in Pre-Medical Studies, a new Wright State program offered by the College of Science and Mathematics that enables students to study the sciences and prepare for entrance into competitive professional programs in the health sciences.
Ko’s journey to Wright State was one of setbacks and determination.
“My life really has been like a movie,” he says.
Ko was born in Seoul, South Korea, and his family moved to nearby Incheon when he was very young. His parents divorced just as Ko graduated from elementary school. For the next four years, he lived in a single-parent home and essentially had to take care of the house, himself and his younger sister.
When he was 16, he moved to Phoenix to live with his mother and learned English while attending high school. One of his instructors in junior ROTC was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former F-16 fighter pilot.
“When I looked at him, wow; he was my inspiration. I wanted to be just like him,” Ko said. “I wanted to become a pilot.”
He applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy, passed the exam and received an academy nomination from U.S. Sen. John McCain, but was turned down at the last minute because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
Ko was told his citizenship process would be expedited if he joined the military, so he enlisted in the Arizona Air National Guard. After serving a year, he returned to the immigration office for his citizenship approval, but was again denied because he wasn’t active duty.
“It was a pretty dark phase,” Ko said. “But I really truly believe that everything happens for a reason as long as I really give my best at it.”
He won an Air Force ROTC college scholarship and chose to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., which has a top aerospace engineering program. Then he learned that the scholarship was going to be withdrawn because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
Ko had all but given up hope of citizenship when he got an email from an immigration specialist for the Marine Corps who had taken his case to heart and asked him to fly to her station in North Carolina. The next day he had his citizenship and his scholarship.
Five years later, Ko had his bachelor degree in aerospace engineering, was a second lieutenant in the Air Force and was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he currently works as a developmental engineer for Joint Strike Fighter propulsion systems.
When he arrived at Wright-Patterson in 2011, Ko went to the dental clinic on the base for a required checkup. It was the first time in his life he had ever been to a dentist.
“The dentist—oh my God—she was just unbelievable,” Ko recalled. “The passion that she had. She was just loving her job.”
The visit was a career turning point for Ko, who decided to try to trade in the detached work of an aerospace engineer for the more personal nature of dentistry.
“When I looked at it—the manual dexterity involved, the attention to detail, the personal interaction you can have with patients, the way that she was able to make you feel as a patient—that was just unbelievable,” Ko said. “It was like, ‘You know, I’m still young. I can do this.’”
Ko expects to get his pre-medical studies certificate from Wright State at the end of this semester. He has been observing dentistry at Greene Dental Associates, which is across the street from the university.
“Ko is very dedicated, very observant, very enthusiastic,” said dentist Percy Torkornoo. “I see the passion.”
Ko has been accepted by six different dental schools and plans to start at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., in the fall. He was one of only four people to win a coveted scholarship from the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship program.
He intends to continue to serve in the Air Force, but as a dentist instead of an aerospace engineer.
During the Korean War, Ko’s grandfather moved from northern Korea to the south.
“Without the U.S. military forces being there, I feel like it wouldn’t have been possible for him to start our family down in South Korea,” Ko said. “I feel like it is now my turn to pay back.”
More information on the Post-Bac Certificate in Pre-Medical Studies is available on the College of Science and Mathematics website.