Chang K. Park
Don’t give up, Chang K. Park ’73 told the graduates at Michigan Tech’s Midyear Commencement. “A setback followed by perseverance is the road to triumph.”
Park learned about setbacks and perseverance early on after he flunked Myron “Doc” Berry’s legendary introductory chemistry class in his first semester. A native of South Korea, Park was still learning English when he came to Michigan Tech, and Berry spoke so fast from the lectern that it all went over his head.
The failing grade was followed by a probation letter from dean of students Harold Meese stating that he would be expelled if his grades didn’t improve. “It was an ominous beginning,” Park noted. “I can now make the claim that I was on the dean’s list too. However, it was a list I had to remove myself from within six months.”
But Park persevered, and triumph came in the form of another chemistry professor, Gladys Dawson. “She made it so interesting and easy,” he remembers. “Some people said it was because I was taking it a second time, and I’d say ‘Not true, I didn’t learn anything the first time.’
“So if there are any graduates here today who were in the same predicament as I was in their first semester, don’t be discouraged. You will do all right,” he told the Class of 2011. “In fact, you will do very well in life. You managed to survive against such great odds at Michigan Tech that whatever challenges life brings to you from now on will be a piece of cake.”
In fact, failing chemistry turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since he had to spend an extra year at the University and used the opportunity to complete a business degree, in addition to his BS in Electrical Engineering. Park then earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and eventually started his own business, about thirty years ago. He is now chairman of Universal Remote Control, based in Harrison, New York, a position that marries his engineering and business acumen. The company is a leading global designer and manufacturer of remote controls and other home automation devices.
He has come a long way. As a child growing up in Korea after the war, Park received powdered milk from USAID and warm clothing from the Salvation Army. He came to the United States from Korea with $200, half in his wallet and the other half sewn into his underwear by his mother—an elegant solution to Korea’s foreign currency export restrictions at that time.
“It was the number of opportunities that I received in this country since then that brought me up from where I was,” he said. “For this reason, I strive with passion for a society that empowers its people to attain their aspirations.”
That dream may be undermined by America’s income disparity, which has been growing for the last three decades. “Unless we reverse this trend, it will lead to a stagnant society where there is little opportunity for social mobility for our fellow citizens,” he said. “I believe that society flourishes only when its people enjoy economic security.”
A member of the National Governing Board of Common Cause, a public interest organization in Washington DC, Park believes that the large amounts of money required to run for public office have given inordinate power to those individuals and corporations that can afford to fund their favored candidates. “It violates the very concept of democratic equality in representation,” Park said.
“In the last election, incumbents spent almost $1.6 million on average to hold on to their House seats and more than $9 million to keep their Senate seats, and over 90 percent of the candidates who raise more money end up winning,” Park said. “Unless we address the congressional campaign finance issue seriously, I am afraid that our system may fail by design.”
However, he cautioned the graduates against cynicism and urged them to hold onto their idealism. “Keep your faith in what our system can be and participate in the political process that affects us all. If you opt out, we may end up where we do not want to be as a society.”
Park also urged the graduating students to keep on learning and acquire wisdom in an increasingly complex world. “The issues we face as a nation are becoming so complex that, if I may speak metaphorically, we can no longer solve them with a basic skill set of algebra. We need to use calculus or even differential equations as a tool to understand and solve the complexity of the issues that confront us as a nation.”
Despite its challenges, “we live in an extraordinary time that offers great opportunities,” he said. “It may not always be smooth sailing. You may run into occasional hails and storms in life, and at times, nothing may seem to work. When that happens, don’t give up. Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and face new challenges. You will be amazed to discover the vast pool of untapped talents that you never knew you had within you as you struggle to overcome the challenges. This is how we all grow in our life.”
Finally, he encouraged the graduates to build their lives upon decency, integrity, and humility. “Make these the core values that define you. It will be like building a house on a rock,” he concluded. “You will not only be blessed in so many ways in your life, but you will also become a blessing to so many others. I believe this is the true meaning of life that we all strive for.”