During his sophomore year at Earlham College, Hyunseong “Sean” Ahn suspended his education and returned home to begin his compulsory military service in his home country of South Korea.
“I had a very difficult decision to make,” Ahn said. South Korean men must enlist between their 18th and 28th birthdays.
“Obviously, I wanted to graduate with my class, but the Korean government has been very good to my family,” Ahn said. “My father works for the Korean government. The opportunity to study in the United States was also supported by them.
“My mother really encouraged me to enlist and not delay. My mom didn’t want the military service to hinder my future studies after Earlham,” he said. “In the end, after weighing my options, I decided to return home.”
Ahn’s service to the military lasted two years and was a watershed moment in his future outlook as he prepares to graduate from Earlham in May with a degree in biochemistry.
“I served as a hospital corpsman with the South Korean Navy and spent those two years on a 5000-ton destroyer,” Ahn said. “Working with doctors helped me think about my path before I came back to Earlham. It pushed me to explore careers in medicine.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,” he said. “Dentistry became a career I knew I should consider.”
After returning to campus, Ahn put his future ambitions to work. Under the pre-health advising guidance of the Earlham College Center for Global Health, he applied for an internship at the University of North Carolina’s Adams School of Dentistry. Earlham’s Epic Advantage program—guaranteed funding every student to participate in an internship, research or other career discerning experience—supported him for the entire summer.
“I’m very blessed,” Ahn said. “I’m very grateful that Earlham has something like the Epic Advantage where I didn’t have to worry about funding to do research I really wanted to do. The funding made this internship possible.”
Ahn participated in the UNC Adams School of Dentistry’s Zero Out Early Childhood Tooth Decay program, a multimillion-dollar research study funded by the National Institutes of Health. He conducted a literature review of genes associated with early childhood caries and participated in research on microbiomes in oral cavities.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Ahn said. “Dental caries or tooth decay is a significant challenge among children from disadvantage backgrounds. Obviously, I was not the person leading the project, but the fact that I was still doing something that had great potential to help a lot of people—I took a lot of meaning from that.
“It was also valuable walking the floors with dental school students. That was a great motivator as I was applying for dental schools.”
Ahn’s outstanding success in the classroom combined with his Epic Advantage internship positioned him for success when applying for graduate schools.
As he began his final spring semester at Earlham, Ahn already had five graduate school offers for admission, including Kansas City University, Indiana University, Detroit Mercy University, Columbia University and UNC. Two of these dental schools have an average acceptance rate of about 10 percent, said Peter Blair, the director of Earlham’s Center for Global Health.
“The challenge of being accepted into U.S. dental schools by an international applicant is immense,” Blair said. “The fact that he was accepted into several top schools is quite the achievement.
“What makes Sean remarkable is his zeal for life, including his wide interests and engagements,” he said. “This includes his passion for dentistry and serving others. He is one of the most compassionate and humble pre-health students I have mentored. His work ethic is impeccable and he is highly respected among his faculty and peers. Sean’s future patients will be well-served and fortunate to have him as their dentist.”
In addition to his degree, Ahn will leave Earlham as the recipient of two major honors given during last week’s Spring Awards Convocation.
He is the College’s recipient of the Russell L. Malcolm Pre-Medicine Award, which is presented to a pre-medical student who has demonstrated not only excellence in science and general scholarship but also the character required to become an outstanding physician.
A student-athlete on the men’s tennis team, Ahn was also among this year’s recipients of the Wendell M. Stanley Senior Scholar-Athlete Award. Named after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner who graduated from Earlham in 1926, the award goes to male student-athletes with a grade point average of at least 3.2.
After graduating from Earlham, Ahn is excited to continue in his pursuit of becoming a dentist at the Adams School of Dentistry at the University of North Carolina. Ahn moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, prior to enrolling at Earlham and lived with a host family while he finished high school.
“The UNC Adams School of Dentistry was an easy choice,” he said. “Chapel Hill holds a special place in my heart, because it’s the place where my American dream began, and UNC is one of the best dental schools in the country. Also, I can be close to my host family and future in-laws.
“I haven’t really decided if I want to go into academia or private practice,” he said. “Both options will give me a great chance to help people in so many ways, to lessen the pain of so many people. All I know is that I want to be a good dentist that does a lot of good for a lot of people.”