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Chico State

Curiosity Fuels Math Major’s History-Making Success: Jongwoo Choi goes above and beyond to make the most of his education

Jongwoo Choi and faculty Kevin McGown work out math problems on a white board.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Outstanding graduating senior Jongwoo Choi (front) reviews work with Mathematics and Statistics faculty Kevin McGown (back) during office hours.

It’s August 25, 2014. Jongwoo Choi is new to campus. In fact, he’s new to the United States, having come from Seoul, South Korea, to attend Chico State. The first college class he attends on American soil is “Calculus 2” with professor of mathematics Kevin McGown.

What little English Choi knows, he learned from watching American TV shows like “Gilmore Girls,” “Criminal Minds,” and “24” in Seoul. But it doesn’t take long for McGown to recognize the international student’s aptitude and potential, as well his high-powered drive and passion for mathematics.

Choi plows through mounds of books on theoretical mathematics. Statistics excites him. And he works tirelessly to connect these two seemingly polar fields of study to understand how they work in concert with one another, fueled by, as Chico State assistant professor of statistics Robin Donatello puts it, “a strong desire to want to know what’s going on in the background, and why things work.”

“Curiosity is the most important thing for my undergraduate education,” Choi said.

As Chico State math faculty take note of Choi’s progress over the next few years, little do they know that he’s poised to make Chico State mathematics history.

In many ways, Choi bridges two different worlds. Immersed in a new culture and learning a second language as he earns his college education at Chico State, he stays connected to home, belting out K-pop songs for the Korean Student Society at the University’s International Music Festival.

Portrait of Jongwoo Choi.
This fall, Choi will attend Columbia University to start a master’s degree in statistics.

Looking deeper, though, there’s more. Like how the kid who entertained convalescent home residents playing classical guitar in South Korea now strides around campus to the beats of Tupac Shakur.

And academically, Choi is completing his mathematics degree this month with two options (math majors are required to choose just one of four options), in general math and statistics. Going further, he is writing honors projects in both options—becoming the first Chico State mathematics student to ever accomplish this.

“Already doing research like this as an undergraduate is exceptional,” said Thomas Mattman, professor of mathematics and statistics. “But doing it in two different areas is kind of unheard of.”

Not only is this demanding of Choi’s time, but the two disciplines can be so different.

“The general math option has more theoretical courses that deal with abstract concepts. In the statistics option, you deal with things that are more concrete and real-world,” McGown said.

This dichotomy is a perfect fit for Choi.

“He sees these mathematical concepts in applied math classes, and he wants to understand how they fit into statistical models we’re using to make decisions about data,” said Donatello, who has employed Choi for data analysis projects with organizations like Enloe Medical Center. “He makes those connections on his own.”

As a youngster, Choi challenged the traditional Korean pedagogy.

“[Students in South Korea] don’t ask, ‘Why do we learn this?’ They don’t know. We just learn it, take a test, and get a grade. There’s no motivation asking why,” he said. “That’s the biggest reason why I came to the United States, to learn why.”

The Chico State math faculty accommodated. Choi satiated this burning curiosity by meeting with McGown weekly, questioning Donatello and professor of statistics Nancy Carter for books he should read, and committing to dual honors projects, writing both theses in his second language.

For perspective, McGown said, “It’s boggling to me to think about if I was in another country right now, not knowing how to speak the other language, and was told in four years I would have to do x, y, z, and write a whole paper in this other language on some topic that I didn’t know anything about yet.”

What kind of student has this drive?

“It’s somebody who enjoys trying to figure things out for the intrinsic sake of getting to that place of understanding,” Mattman said. “Why do you climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. It’s not because of any extrinsic value. It comes from inside.”

This innate curiosity has bloomed into opportunity for Choi. Earlier this year, he was one of 19 Chico State students to win the prestigious Lt. Robert Merton Rawlins Merit Award, and in the fall he’ll attend Columbia University to begin working toward a master’s degree in statistics. Possessing a particular interest in medical research, “I think he’ll go as far as he wants to go,” Carter said.

Remember the times Choi played classical guitar at convalescent homes in South Korea? He also took time to help clean the homes, prepare meals, and care for residents.

“He’s one of the most polite, gentlemanly, kind people. He’s all about other people and helping them,” Carter said. “He’s someone who I feel very lucky to have had as a student. He makes you glad you came into this business.”