When Samuel Choo was a senior in high school, his mother became sick from cancer. At school, he threw himself hard into every activity he could find – student council president, honor society president, drum major. At home, he struggled.
His father, an ex-Army drill instructor, “would get angry with me if I was showing signs of weakness or sadness; he didn’t want me to make my mom sad,” Samuel remembers.
Samuel, an only child, says he put “a veil of secrecy” over his anxiety: “a happy face to support my mom and not make my dad mad.”
When she died a few months after graduation, Samuel’s mental health deteriorated. Some days, he couldn’t get out of bed because of depression. Other times, when he was driving, he was overtaken with so much sadness and panic, he couldn’t fully grip the wheel and had to pull over and wait until his emotions subsided. He’d been admitted into Baylor University but withdrew without finishing his first semester.
Recently, Samuel, now 29, reflected on his past from his home in the Dallas area, where he works as a Starbucks shift supervisor. In a few days, he’s set to graduate from Arizona State University as a member of the Dean’s List. The journey to his liberal arts degree has taken about 10 years – one class a semester while working full time and focusing on his mental health.
“I can definitely say I’ve done my best, even though the path was bumpy for sure along the way,” Samuel says. “I took it in stride and made it to the finish line. I’m really proud of the experience I’ve gained through the process.”
Born in Seattle, Samuel moved with his parents to the Dallas area when he was 11 years old. His parents managed a restaurant together. His father, Roger, is a Korean immigrant who’d retired from the U.S. military. His mother, Debbie, who was white, was originally from West Virginia.
Samuel moved out of the house after coming back from Baylor and started working at Teavana, while taking classes at a community college. Starbucks acquired the tea company in 2012, and as Samuel transitioned to Starbucks, he found out about the Starbucks College Achievement Plan shortly after. The benefit covers 100 percent of the tuition toward a first-time bachelor’s degree through ASU’s online program. He took advantage of the company’s mental-health benefits too, including free counseling sessions.
When the right opportunity comes, Samuel wants to focus his career on helping entrepreneurs and small businesses develop their organizational culture and create stronger customer connections, subjects he’s not only studying at ASU but also on the job as a Starbucks partner. In fact, Samuel feels he has an advantage over some who go the traditional four-year route right out of high school. “I have my 10 years of workforce experience,” he says.
He’s also come full circle with his father, who embraced therapy to deal with his own struggles with post-traumatic stress.
“Seeing him so sensitive now and not so afraid of his own emotions, I’m really proud of him,” Samuel says. “And us being able to share our stories in a way that we weren’t able to when mom was sick and right after she passed … I never got to know mom as an adult. So now that he’s more open mentally and emotionally, I’m able to reconnect to my mom through him which has been really cool.”
Samuel hopes it’s safe enough by December to travel to ASU’s Fall commencement ceremony in Tempe, Ariz., when ASU will offer current spring grads a chance to walk the stage with the rest of the Class of 2020. For now, he’ll bake a cake and watch the virtual celebration with his boyfriend and his dogs.
“This journey has helped me learn who I am and who I want to become,” Samuel says. “I’m now able to act in my life and make decisions that I want to, instead of just reacting to what life is throwing at me.”