KAGRO

Members of the Korean American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, Inc., provide scholarships for local students. Left to right: Jin Kang, Kwang Lee, Jay Park. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / March 31, 2012)

Traneika Fleet wants to become a nurse and help cancer patients. Josh Greenspan aims to be an aerospace engineer. And classical singer Yoon Jung Kim and actor Delante Desouza both dream of performing on the professional stage.

These Baltimore students are one step closer to their goals after receiving $500 scholarships awarded recently by the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland Inc., known as KAGRO.

The group, whose mission includes helping Korean-American retailers adapt to American culture and business practices, launched its scholarship program in 1995.

"We gave 22 scholarships this year," said Jay Park, chairman of KAGRO's Maryland chapter, which has about 1,200 members. "We are happy to do this for the community."

Now in its 17th year, the program has benefited more than 200 students from Baltimore's public high schools and area colleges.

To reach potential scholarship recipients, the organization hangs posters in local Korean-owned stores, posts applications on its website and reaches out through school guidance counselors.

While academic merit and financial need are considered, students like Max Frazier and Dymond Green, both Polytechnic Institute seniors with grade-point averages above 3.0, were also selected on the strength of their personal essays.

Frazier wrote about protecting the environment. In his essay, Green wrote about a father who had been incarcerated, a stepfather who was murdered, and a single mother who struggled to provide for Green and her two siblings.

"Despite the pain and disappointment, my mother always encouraged me," said Green, who has been accepted by four colleges. "I'm very excited about my future."

This year's scholarship recipients were honored by KAGRO during a festive ceremony at the Greenmount Senior Center in East Baltimore this month.

The students and their families mingled with elected officials, civic leaders, and members of the Baltimore Police Department, who were also recognized for their crimefighting efforts.

The center was gaily decorated for the occasion with flowers, balloons, and both American and South Korean flags. Guests sampled an Asian buffet that featured sushi, kimchi, sweet and sour chicken, and other dishes.

"I'll be the first in my family to attend college," said William Ennals, a Poly senior who plays football and lacrosse and has received early acceptance letters from several universities.

His classmate, Grace Kearney, has already been accepted by Harvard and Stanford. "I'm strongly considering medicine — pediatrics or geriatrics," she said.

The event also provided an opportunity for folks from diverse backgrounds to engage in cross-cultural dialogue.

Jin W. Kang, a business owner, said Korean merchants in the city worked to improve community relations after heightened tensions in the 1980s with residents in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and after a spate of robberies — including some homicides — in the late 1990s.

"We heard, 'You don't smile or make eye contact.' That was a cultural difference we had to learn," said Kang, a former president of KAGRO. "And many still do not speak much English. But things are better."

Several students, including Dameera Gray-El and Tayquan Upshur, who both attend Douglass High, said their interaction with Baltimore's Korean community had been limited before the scholarship dinner.

"They're nice people," said Gray-El, a drum major and athlete who plans to major in psychology and minor in music in college.

Upshur, an honors student who hopes to someday design video games, said the grocer group's faith in his abilities and the college acceptances he's received have given him additional motivation to achieve his goals. "My morale went up," he said.

Harrison Lee, a Poly math and science whiz who's interested in computer technology and its health care applications, said the event left him with heightened pride in his heritage; his father is second-generation Korean-American.

"I didn't grow up speaking Korean," said Lee, who's considering several engineering schools. "But I'm intrigued and think I may learn."