Like many 19-year-olds, Matthew Wood is just now starting to pay attention to politics. But now that he’s borrowing thousands of dollars each year for a college degree and facing an uncertain job market in the near future, the issues of the day seem closer to home.
Last year, Wood cast a vote in his first-ever presidential election. He had concerns about government spending, education costs and the nation’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate and was glad to be able to weigh in on the direction the country should head.
“Some people fight and risk their lives just to vote,” said Wood. “We get this privilege in America, we should use it.”
Wood hasn’t always been an American. Twenty years ago, on the same day President Bill Clinton took his first oath of office, Wood was born in Seoul, South Korea, to a single mother who couldn’t afford to raise him. He lived in a Korean foster home for eight months before joining his adoptive American family in Glendale, Ariz., a city northwest of downtown Phoenix. Two years later, he became a citizen.
“I’ve always wanted to go back to Korea and explore, see how these people live,” said Wood. “It’s something that I’m definitely proud of, because it’s part of my heritage -- even though I’m not the most Korean of people.”
Wood’s notions of what life would be like if he’d grown up in his birthplace -- and what it means to be Korean -- are drawn mostly from befriending Korean foreign exchange students that attended private school with him in Arizona. They told him about the hyper-competitive educational environment in South Korea, where 14-hour study days are the norm and team sports are rare.
South Korea came in second in a recent assessment of the education system of 50 countries by the education firm Pearson, while the U.S. came in 17th.
“Pretty much their entire life is homework and devoted to studies,” said Wood. “Here, I do my studies, but I have a lot of time to do sports and all of the other stuff in life.”
Wood said he is obsessed with sports. His father coached his youth soccer team. He was on the soccer and basketball teams in high school. He says he watches almost every Phoenix Suns game. He says friends even call him “the Encyclopedia of NBA.” Now at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., Wood studies business with an emphasis on sports management, hoping to someday work for a professional sports team.
Alongside this steady diet of sports, education is hugely important for Wood and his family. Wood’s mother Jane never went to college, but she has labored to give her children what she couldn’t have. Despite job experience as a financial analyst for American Express, she says her lack of degree has been a hindrance.
“I didn’t have the opportunity that Matthew has today,” Jane Wood said. “If I wanted something, if I didn’t work for it, I didn’t get it.”
After adopting Matthew and younger sister Kayla (also from South Korea), Jane and her husband, who works for a lumber supplier in Glendale, put money away in mutual funds for the kids’ college. Matthew Wood pays for a portion of his $40,000 tuition bill with academic scholarships. He took out whatever loans he could get, and his family covers the rest.
“I think I have more opportunity because my parents didn’t have as much as I do,” said Wood, sitting in the dining room of the home he’s grown up in since coming to the U.S. “In that regard, I guess you could say I do have more chances. But it’s also hard to get a job now.”
Wood voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and considers himself conservative. He describes his father as a “hardcore Republican,” and his mother is a registered Democrat who occasionally swings Republican -- as she did in 1992 and 2012. Wood says more than a particular party, he wants to see effective leadership in the White House.
“They can be Democrat, Independent, Republican, just as long as they look at the core problems, evaluate them and try to provide solutions,” said Wood. “I think most people my age look at politics and see a bunch of old people arguing and nothing getting done, so it’s basically like, ‘what’s the point?’”
This year, as Wood celebrates his twentieth birthday, he says he’ll likely tune in to the President’s inaugural address -- but Obama will have to contend with whatever’s on ESPN.