Her nickname is "Star." It's a name that was given to Ui Hyang Shields, the 18-year-old Korean girl who is this year's valedictorian at Springarn High School, by a friend in the Southeast neighborhood where she first lived after coming to the United States.
That was in 1976, when Ui Hyang (pronounced Wee-yon) remembers that she couldn't speak much English, had few friends, and cried over the elementary school reading assignments she got in junior high school.
Next week Ui Hyang, still called Star by her friends, will graduate from Spingarn High School in Northeast with a grade point average of 3.84 out of a possible 4. She would like to be a doctor.
But unlike most valedictorians, Ui Hyang is not going to college. Instead, the best student in this year's graduating class at Springarn, which sends only 25 percent of its students to college, enlisted in the Army hoping to return to her mother in Korea. She did so after Washington Army recruiter Sgt. Thomas Berry had told her there would be "no problem if something was available."
On May 16, the day she was scheduled to take her Army oath in Baltimore, she was told that, indeed, nothing was available. Alone in Baltimore, Ui Hyang said she thought about enlistment, her homeland and her mother as she ate a slice of pizza for lunch. She decided to sign up anyway.
"I felt like crying," Ui Hyang said later. "I didn't know if I had made the right decision."
Springarn principal Clemmie H. Strayhorn said he is furious that Berry, who had visited Springarn to recruit students, encouraged one with clear potential to win a scholarship to college to enlist.
"I would have whipped him had I known," Strayhorn said. "He won't be welcome at Springarn anymore."
"She enlisted of her own free will," Berry said recently. "She was not forced into enlisting."
Strayhorn also acknowledged that he should have given Ui Hyang more guidance about college opportunities. "It shows how easily a student like Ui Hyang can fall through the cracks," he said.
But Ui Hyang's reasons for joining the service are in some ways common to many students in the D.C. public schools who are recruited out of high school. She didn't know how she'd pay for college. She didn't want to be a burden to her aunt, wbo had married an American GI and brought Ui Hyang to the U.S. at her mother's request. But mostly Ui Hyang wanted to get back to Korea, to her mother who had worked in a town far from where her family lived and so had left Ui Hyang and her sister with an aunt.
"I don't have much love for my mother," Ui Hyang said. "But the fact that I share her blood, I don't want to see her suffer or lonely. I'm the only thing she has." Ui Hyang has seen her mother only once since moving here.
Ui Hyang also said she did not always get along with her aunt's husband, a situation that had led Ui Hyang to leave her aunt's home for part of her senior year and support herself working as a cashier at a variety of Korean-owned grocery stores.
For all these reasons, she decided to enlist for four years in the Army and study auto mechanics.
Ui Hyang is the only Oriental attending Springarn at 24th Street and Benning Road NE, which draws its students from the working class neighborhoods around Kenilworth Avenue and Benning Road.
When Ui Hyang entered Miller Junior High School in Northeast in 1977 she was placed in a class with slow learners who watched television shows similar to Seasame Street during school. She remembers the stares she always got on the first day of school as the only Oriental.
But she surrounded herself with only English-speaking friends, stayed after school with her teachers until she understood what she had not grasped during class, and studied all evening.
She remembers going over to the apartment of her neighbor -- the one who nicknamed her Star -- on many afternoons and reading from the encyclopedia. Within a year of enrolling in the public schools, she was reading mystery novels in English and getting only A's and B's.
In the beginning of her senior year, Bridgeport placed her in the school's Hi-Skip Program, which permits seniors to earn college credits at local colleges. But Ui Hyang dropped out because she thought it was more important for her to work in the afternoons to help support herself.
"I decided to go into the Army for one thing," said Ui Hyang. "To go to Korea."
Berry, her recruiter, said that is still possible, that a job may eventually open for Ui Hyang there, although he could not estimate when that might be.