She Left Grounds With 4 Suitcases for a Teaching Job. She’s Now a Star Educator.

February 15, 2023 By Mike Mather, Mike Mather,

To Esther Kwon, an assistant principal in Hawaii, the scheduled assembly seemed fairly routine. District VIPs were heading to Daniel K. Inouye Elementary in Wahiawa and she’d need to ensure good attendance.

She didn’t know she was the star of the show.

Once everyone was gathered, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, school district dignitaries and members of the Milken Family Foundation handed a stunned Kwon a giant ceremonial check for $25,000 in front of the school’s students, who were whipped into a cacophony of excited squeals.

“I was confused, shocked, but mostly grateful,” said Kwon, a 2012 University of Virginia graduate. “Up until that point, I thought we were getting together to welcome the superintendent to our school. In fact, I was the one who sent out a reminder email to our faculty and staff about the assembly.”

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Students at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School showing surprise and joy
Students at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School react when they are told one of the school’s educators has won a $25,000 prize.

The Milken Educator Awards honor the country’s top early- to mid-career educators. The awards are a thank you for what the educators have accomplished so far, but also, according to the foundation, “for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future.”

Kwon’s students and co-workers piled so many congratulatory leis over her head that they stacked nearly to her nose. She called her husband, who seemed equally as shocked. “Wow,” was about all he could muster. And then she called her mother and told her about the windfall in her family’s native Korean.

Kwon can spend the money any way she pleases.

Esther Kwon nearly swallowed by ceremonial leis
Esther Kwon, who was Esther Park when she graduated UVA in 2012, is nearly swallowed by ceremonial leis at her elementary school in Hawaii.

“At our school, students recite the Eagles pledge: ‘Take care of yourself, take care of others and take care of your school,’” Kwon told UVA Today. “I plan on using the gift to travel and create special memories for myself, family and friends. That way, I can continue to show up recharged as my best self to take care of our school.”

Kwon showed up 10 years ago at the elementary school that serves a military base, still fresh from Final Exercises.

“I was accepted into Teach for America during my fourth year and was placed in the Hawaii region,” said Kwon, who was Esther Park when she graduated. “I moved to Oahu with four suitcases about a week after graduating from UVA with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs and a minor in Asian Pacific American studies.”

Kristin Walje, Jane Foley, Sylvia Luke, Esther Kwon, Keith Hayashi, and Robert Davis accepting a large check for $25,000
Esther Kwon accepts her ceremonial check flanked by, left to right, principal Kristin Walje, Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Hawaii Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi and region Superintendent Robert Davis.

Once in Hawaii, she settled in as a fifth-grade teacher and later as a gifted resource teacher.

“My experience at UVA has truly expanded my definition of leadership and purpose,” she said. “I chose education because the field empowers me to contribute to the greater good with honor and integrity. The concept of student self-governance has also greatly influenced how I operate with my student leaders – yes, even at the elementary school level.”

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Kwon says her time at UVA instilled in her the value of lifelong learning. So, in Hawaii, she took advantage of every opportunity to learn to be a better educator. That included pursuing a master’s degree online while also focusing on the courses and seminars to advance in the school system. This year, she was promoted to assistant principal.

“I think if you value meaningful work, and an opportunity to continuously grow and learn, teaching is a wonderful opportunity to make that impact,” she said. “You can really improve someone’s life trajectory by providing them a sense of belonging and creating awesome learning opportunities for students.”

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications