Justin Park never expected to be moved by medieval poetry.
In spite of this, the former high school dropout and recent UC Berkeley graduate recently learned he has been chosen as one of 40 individuals nationwide to receive a full scholarship to study Old English literature at the University of Cambridge.
Park, who received his undergraduate degree in English with a minor in medieval studies in 2012, has been awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to pursue a Master of Philosophy at one of the world’s most elite universities. He will focus on Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies.
“I was kind of stunned — (and) a little bit in disbelief,” Park said of receiving the scholarship.
Before coming to UC Berkeley, Park spent four years in the U.S. Navy and eight years waiting tables in San Francisco. After years without any real direction, Park started to think about what he wanted to do with his life in the long term.
“I didn’t see myself studying English,” Park said. “I hated high school. (However), I loved reading novels and poetry. I saw myself as maybe being a writer at some point, (but) I never saw this.”
The Gates Cambridge scholarship is awarded to individuals from countries outside the United Kingdom who show outstanding intellectual achievements, leadership and a desire to improve the lives of others, according to its website.
“He knows how to lead people by working with people, not telling them what to do,” said professor Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe,who is the chair in the campus Department of English. “I think he’s going to be a leader in the field after he gets his Ph.D. and starts teaching.”
Park said he was first drawn to Old English after reading the poem “Dream of the Rood” while attending San Francisco City College.
“The thing that was really drawing me into it was the unexpected complexity,” Park said. “I assumed it was simple and uninteresting, but once I started reading it I realized it was very complex and fascinating … I got hooked on it.”
During his first semester at UC Berkeley, he wrote a paper on Beowulf, which he went on to deliver at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Conference, a conference dedicated to ancient and modern languages in literature, according to professor Maura Nolan of the English department. He delivered a second paper at the conference the year after.
“Delivering papers at a professional conference as an undergraduate is extremely rare,” Nolan said. “It’s an incredible achievement.”
Once he receives his masters degree at Cambridge, Park has accepted admissions to Yale University to work toward a doctorate in English. He said he hopes to become a professor and would like to return to his home of the Bay Area one day.
“It would be awesome to come back to Berkeley and teach,” Park said. “That would be a dream.”