Class of 2015
North Vancouver, Canada
Brian Jaewon Chung downed a lukewarm glass of horse milk while masking his distaste and smiling politely at his Mongolian hosts. Rising from the felt floor of the ger, a cylindrical, cloth-walled structure heated by a simple, dung-burning stove, Brian stepped out onto the unbroken plain of the Gobi desert and began to walk. In minutes, he stood utterly alone atop a massive dune. The desert wind had covered his tracks, and, far in the distance, the warm glow emanating from the solitary window of the ger was the sole thread connecting him to the world of men. He took another step, and the lighted window disappeared under the crest of the dune.
Just a week earlier, Brian had been crammed into the clacking berth of a Trans-Siberian railway car among business travelers, families, and assorted Russian military personnel. There he had stood out, not as the solitary human in a vast desert, but as one of few foreigners—and certainly as the lone Korean Canadian. This had the unfortunate effect of making him a magnet for the shoulders of drunken soldiers looking for a fight, or, at least, for an interesting argument.
This kind of tense moment is precisely why Brian, a straight A student and winner of several national math tournaments who scored a perfect 800 on the SAT math exam, chose to take a year off to travel alone before starting college, and why he decided to end his gap year with a Trans-Siberian excursion, squeezing it in just before packing his bags for NYU Abu Dhabi. "Earlier in my gap year I had made some Russian friends while traveling in South America. They had warned me not to take the Trans-Siberian, so of course I had to. Fortunately for me the other passengers were quick to intervene with the soldiers," he says with a grin, clearly relishing the memory.
In this hyper-documented era of Lonely Planet and Google Earth, the beaten path has been significantly widened, and most travelers are content to stay on it. Brian has a slightly different philosophy: "I travel because I love getting lost. I love being in places and dealing with cultures that I know absolutely nothing about. When I'm a complete foreigner, utterly on the outside, I become more conscious of the common humanity that connects all of us."
Brian hasn't always been such a composed traveler. After completing his junior year, and with a mild, western Canadian summer spanning endlessly before him, he felt the desire for something more, something unknown. He booked a ticket to Cusco, Peru and signed up with a nongovernmental organization to watch orphaned children at the local police station, where, by law, they had to be detained for 24 hours after being picked up off the streets.
"It was terrifying. My Spanish was limited. The police were screaming at the kids who were three, four, and five years old. But the strangest thing to me was that these children, who had absolutely nothing, were in many ways quite happy. I realized at that moment how privileged I am. And I vowed never to be bored or dissatisfied, but to take advantage of every opportunity life gave me."
Just prior to heading to NYU Abu Dhabi, Brian had been standing alone in the midst of Asia's largest desert in the early morning light, when he suddenly felt an incredible sense of gratitude for the opportunities his life has allowed him.
"I thought, wow, I'm almost nothing compared to the vast stretch of nature that lies ahead of me. Yet at the same time, I have consciousness, I can find meaning in all of this. We live in a human-centered era and we often think that our actions are all-important. It's freeing to remember that this isn't always the case."
Now, having arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi after a year spent traveling alone on four continents, Brian looks forward to exploring yet another unknown: his future. "I plan to take full advantage of NYU's core liberal arts curriculum to help me decide on a major. And I have my eye on a semester at NYU Madrid."