How an insecure teenager became a NASA-trained Navy SEAL, and convinced his Korean-American mom to allow him to join the military
- US Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, a former Navy SEAL with a Harvard medical degree and NASA training, struggled throughout high school, despite receiving good grades.
- "I remember lunch time in high school being one of the worst times of the day, because I never wanted to be seen not having any friends to eat with - and I would roam the halls aimlessly," Kim told Insider.
- Kim's father, who died when he was 18-years-old, never saw his son become a Navy SEAL.
- "My mother, with tears in her eyes, [said], 'It's not too late, you can come home and we'll do this family business,' Kim recalled. "And for a fleeting moment, I considered it."
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US Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, former Navy SEAL and second-generation Korean-American who earned a Harvard medical degree, took the spotlight when he became a NASA astronaut. A Texas senator said Kim's accomplishments made him feel "horribly, horribly inadequate."
"What the heck have we been doing with our lives," Republican Sen. Ted Cruz jokingly said of himself and his colleague, Sen. John Cornyn, during a NASA graduation ceremony on Friday.
While Kim is quick to downplay his Navy SEAL experience; medical degree from a prestigious university; and his new membership among NASA astronauts, his journey was not conventional.
His mother and father immigrated to the US in the early 1980s, where they settled in South Central Los Angeles. Like many South Korean immigrants in California, they opened up a liquor store.
Roughly 723 licensed liquor outlets operated in South Los Angeles among the 500,000 residents in the early 1990s, well beyond the state limit laws that limited one per 2,500 residents. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, 625 liquor stores in the area were believed to be owned by Koreans in 1992.
Kim's father did not have a formal education and grew up in a impoverished, rural area in South Korea. According to Kim, he did not have a formal education and he never received an education beyond high school.
"My father was the classic epitome of a very hard immigrant-worker," Kim told Insider in an interview. "He made up for his lack of education by working really hard ... He worked six days a week for as long as I can remember."
Kim's mother also worked as a part-time substitute school teacher for an elementary school, while raising Kim and his younger brother.
'High school was interesting'
Kim said he was a shy kid who struggled to make friends in high school and that few would have foreseen his future success, including himself.
"High school was interesting," he said. "For a lot of people, high school was just a big social experiment, and I think the value of high school was not so much learning how to be a great student ... but I think it's learning how to interact with people and be social."
"I would say that in that endeavor, I completely failed," Kim added.
Kim received high marks in his classes, which included several Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and appeared to be on-track to attend a university after graduating from high school. But Kim said there was something missing in his life and he "knew my heart wasn't there."
"I was a really low-confident kid," Kim said. "I did have friends from playing sports - I played water polo and I swam. But at the heart of it, I was really scared of talking to people, and making friends, and making relationships."
"I remember lunch time in high school being one of the worst times of the day, because I never wanted to be seen not having any friends to eat with - and I would roam the halls aimlessly," he added. "So high school was a formative time for me and I wouldn't say the highlight of my life."
The only thing he was "driven" to do as a teenager Kim said, was to join the Navy and become a SEAL.
'It's not too late, you can come home'
As a 16-year-old yearning to enlist in the Navy, breaking the news to his mother was not easy. The decision to enlist would forgo any plans for college, and there was still a chance he would be forced to take a different job in the Navy if he failed out of SEAL training.
"I remember when I first told her ... she cried," Kim said. "She told me, 'You're so smart, why would you do something like that.'"
"That was really unusual for me, when I went to my mother and I said, 'I know what I want to do, and I'm going to do it.' And there wasn't anyone or anything to talk me out of it. It was the first time I set my sights on a dream."
His mother initially pressed him to join one of the service academies, which includes a free college education and at least four years of military service. But Kim says he was adamant on enlisting. Enlisted service members are not required to have a college degree, and are paid significantly less than their commissioned counterparts, who are typically required to have completed college.
"I want to enlist," Kim recalled telling his mother. "I want to be in the deep trenches, from the bottom, working my way up."
When Kim was 18 and finished with high school, his mother dropped him off at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Los Angeles, one of the last vestiges of civilian life before his transition into the military. Kim's father had recently died, and was not alive to see his son join the Navy.
"My mother, with tears in her eyes, [said], 'It's not too late, you can come home and we'll do this family business,' Kim said. "And for a fleeting moment, I considered it."
But Kim eventually closed the door and told her, "I have to do this."
Kim understands his mother's concerns and theorized there may have been cultural differences to account for.
Kim said that some parents, particularly those who immigrated to the US under difficult circumstances, may think their sacrifices would have been made in vain, if their children enlisted in the military right out of high school.
"I know certainly that my parents sacrificed a lot to come to America, and to ... start a new life for their family and their future families," Kim said.
"At least with first-generation Asian-American immigrants, parents put so much risk in work and to provide the best for their children," Kim said, adding that some metrics for success could come exclusively in the form of practicing law or becoming a physician.
People of Asian heritage are one of the most under-represented groups in the US military. According to 2017 report on the military's demographics, 4.4% of the over 2 million US service members were Asian.
Over 70% US service members were white, and 17% were black or African-American. Hispanics and Latinos, who were not considered a minority race by the Office of Management and Budget, comprised of 14% of US service members.
Kim's mother eventually supported his decision and is now proud of her son. She joined him for his graduation ceremonies from the Navy and Harvard Medical School.
"She's very proud and happy I went with it," Kim said, adding that "it's natural for any parent to have hesitation" when their children decide to join the military.
"My parents wanted the best for me, they knew I did well in school, so they wanted me to have the classic white-collar job. Which is the last thing I wanted to do."