A Rotarian’s Journey from Korea to America

An account of scholarship, service and becoming a global citizen.

This June, Woodrow “Wooj” Byun is making perhaps his biggest giving-back contribution with the publication of his new book: My Rotary Journey: A Memoir of a Rotary International Ambassador. Although Byun had always imagined he would someday write a book about his life, it wasn’t until a serendipitous meeting at a Rotary club convention, with a few important benefactors that convinced him he was ready.

“I had to share with people my Rotary experience coming full circle,” Byun says. His hope is that his story will inspire ambassadorial scholarship recipients like himself to reconnect with their local Rotary clubs and to give back. And of course, his collection of essays on topics ranging from childbirth to helping 120 elderly Koreans pass the U.S. citizenship interview are not only humorous but enlightening for anyone curious about what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a Korean-American Rotarian.

Many years ago in Busan, South Korea, Byun, just a little boy, gazed upon an image in a children’s encyclopedia. It showed children of many nationalities holding hands around the globe. It was at that moment Byun realized what he wanted to do with his life. “I thought, when I grow up I want to be a global citizen … I want to broaden my horizons,” Byun says. But Byun did not know at the time that within two decades, this dream would take him halfway around the world, set him on a path of service and eventually lead him to publish a book about his journey.

Throughout his schooling in South Korea, Byun studied linguistics and international law. By his late 20s, he had completed an internship at a law firm in Hong Kong and was contemplating law or business school. A coworker at the law firm hailed from the faraway land of Minnesota and suggested that Byun consider the University of Minnesota.

It would be an expensive plane ride and a substantial financial commitment, but Byun was intrigued by the prospects of studying abroad and becoming a global citizen. So when Byun learned about an ambassadorial scholarship offered through the Rotary District of Busan that could help him make his dream a reality, he eagerly applied. The Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship is awarded to college-level students who want to study in a host country they have never been to before. The goal is to foster friendly relations and understanding between people of different countries. Scholarship recipients are invited to make presentations and facilitate discussions at local Rotary clubs while living and studying abroad.

Byun received a yearlong Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in 1990 and moved into an apartment near the University of Minnesota Law School, where he spent most of his time studying. “Here, every day was a learning lesson for me,” Byun says. “Everything was new to me.” After Byun graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, he decided to stay in the United States. He had married a woman from Iowa and later settled into a law practice in Edina. Along the way, with a sharp wit and keen sense of observation, Byun filled many journals with tales from his first few years in America. He thought perhaps his musings would become a book someday; for the time being, his anecdotes were only shared among friends.

Wooj meets Vice President Walter Mondale at the 125th anniversary celebration for the University of Minnesota Law School.

After achieving success in the United States, Byun could not shake the feeling that it was his turn to give back. Throughout his year in the scholarship program he had visited a dozen local Rotary clubs as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar, where he learned that service is something Rotarians live by. Although he wasn’t a Rotarian at the time, Byun believed an attitude of service is something even non-Rotarians should adopt. So he approached the Edina Rotary Club hoping to devise a plan to pay back his scholarship. But club members had a better idea. They invited Byun to join as an official member. “That way we could make the circle full,” Byun explains.

Byun remembers well his first meeting with the Edina Rotary Club. “I was the only non-Scandinavian in the room, and I was younger than most,” he says. But that didn’t hinder his dedication to the group. “For me, Rotary Club meetings were more important than anything else,” he says. Paul Mooty, a former president of the Edina Rotary Club, says, “It was clear from early on that Wooj was a true Rotarian with a heart for service.” By the late 1990s Byun held his first officer position, and from 2011–12  he served as Rotary Club president—and never once missed a weekly meeting.

It was during that year Byun assigned himself a goal: to repay through service the initial investment Rotary made for his law school scholarship. Although that was nearly $24,000 back in 1990, he figured the investment would have reaped over $2 million had the club placed the money in stock. “I asked myself, ‘Am I worth $2 million in return?’ A lot of club members will remember me saying I carried two mortgages: one for my house and another for the scholarship,” says Byun with a laugh. “It’s a long-term mortgage, but it’s a happy mortgage.”

Throughout the years, Byun and the Edina Rotary Club have helped with many causes, including polio eradication, Feed My Starving Children, the Jeremiah House and even Thanksgiving Day turkey deliveries. But Byun has taken on a few causes of his own, including raising $15,000 in less than two months to bring Hee Ah Lee, a young South Korean pianist with only four fingers, to Minnesota, with the hopes of inspiring a local boy with a similar condition. “Wooj accomplished an incredible gesture of good will that touched so many,” says Mooty. “Whatever Wooj takes on, he does it with a passion and works tirelessly.”

Byun’s parents and three siblings still live in South Korea, and he visits them every year. He would like to spend more time in Korea but his children are busy with school and activities at home in Edina. “I've become more Scandinavian than I thought I would, and I'm comfortable here," Byun says. Read more about Byun’s life as a global citizen in My Rotary Journey: A Memoir of a Rotary International Ambassador.

For more information or to get involved in local and worldwide service with the Edina Rotary club visit edinarotary.org