UCF professor offers music to underserved students
For Chung Park, music was his saving grace.
Raised by a single mother with two siblings in the big city of Chicago, the UCF Symphony Orchestra director began to walk down a dead end in high school. Life at home was chaotic and he didn’t like school.
“I felt aimless,” he says. “My compass was not focused in the right direction.”
That was until his music teachers helped him get back on track.
Park is now an associate professor of Music, Director of String Music Education and Director of Symphony and Chamber Orchestras at the College of Arts and Humanities. But beyond his daily work, he is also the educational coordinator of A gift for music, a local non-profit organization founded on the idea that all children, regardless of their socio-economic status, should have access to the life-changing benefits of quality music education.
All children served by A Gift for Music attend an Orange County Elementary, Middle or High School, or are entitled to a free or discounted lunch.
For Park, this program is personal.
“I know the power of music,” he says. “It can keep kids in school who might otherwise fall off the map.”
Over the past four years, he has spent most of his Saturdays conducting free orchestral practice for around 100 students. Behind the scenes, however, it’s much more orchestrated; he also created a transparent pipeline from UCF to A Gift for Music.
He teaches students and then places them in instructor roles in the program, where students learn to play stringed instruments. It’s a win-win; students earn pay and real-world experience, and the organization has an endless pipeline of enthusiastic instructors who help expose younger students to college – what children in underserved communities don’t not always have.
“The chance to learn from Chung and give back to A Gift for Music is one of the reasons I am going to UCF for graduate studies 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 am going to UCF for graduate studies in the fall,” says Cesar Olmeda, bassist, who is involved in 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 violinist. He was introduced to bass as he progressed from free music lessons after school on weekdays to orchestral practices on Saturdays. He is just one of hundreds of students A Gift for Music has seen go to college.
About 90% of A Gift for Music graduates go to college, Park says, although students at Title I schools – where at least 40% of students come from low-income families – are less likely to progress to- beyond high school. In 2016, about 20% of dependent undergraduates in the United States were from low-income families, according to the Pew Research Center.
“A gift for music gives these children a sense of security. It’s a place where they can talk about ambitions, good grades and be surrounded by like-minded people, ”Park says.
During Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 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 leading roles because if we don’t exist, the people who come after us don’t think they can do it, ”says Park. “I get chills just thinking about it.”