May 03, 2017
Olivia Koh and volunteers at Christ Child House

Olivia Koh at Safety StreetIf you look up the definition of the word valedictorian, you won’t see words like inspiring, caring, determined, smart, dedicated, giving, selfless or driven. But University of Detroit Mercy’s 2017 valedictorian Sehie Olivia Koh is all of those things and more.

Koh has excelled in the classroom, student organizations, Residence Life, friendships, mentoring and, in her biggest passion, service and charity work.

With the rest of her family in South Korea, Koh has been living in the United States on her own since late during her senior year of high school.

She’s hit some bumps during her time at Detroit Mercy. But through it all she’s never made excuses, taken advantage of every opportunity to push herself and continued to serve others, while inspiring so many others to serve with her.

Koh admits she hates public speaking, so when she takes the stage at graduation to speak as the valedictorian, it will be her last opportunity to push herself at Detroit Mercy before she moves on to graduate school in Buffalo.

Part of the reason Koh wanted to be valedictorian is because she feels she has a story to share, and given all her accomplishments, her story could fill books. The Sehie Olivia Koh story is still ongoing, but the themes are clearly serve others, embrace your background, push yourself and leave a legacy.

(This is the first in a four-part series on Detroit Mercy Valedictorian Sehie Olivia Koh. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

Passion project leads to service legacy

Boys 2 Men is a service project funded through the Ford Community Corps Partnership (FCCP), where Detroit Mercy students volunteer at Christ Child House, an orphanage for boys ages 6 through 16. 

This past school year, between 300 and 400 Detroit Mercy students volunteered.

Through the service project, the boys of Christ Child House went through a 12-week program, which included things like a career fair, volunteer work, tutoring and an award dinner.

It’s a wonderful project, which the boys, volunteers and Christ Child House staff have all enjoyed. But just a few years ago the project didn’t exist; it was only a thought, an idea, a vision in the back of Koh’s mind.

Koh knew she wanted to do service work and she enjoyed working with children. She called around to some places in Detroit and started volunteering at Christ Child House.

“Christ Child House, it just spoke to me,” Koh said. “It hit me really hard because the backgrounds of the kids are tough. I’ve worked with a lot of different people, but hearing it from kids so young, they just had so much going on.”

After hearing the stories of what the kids had been through prior to living at Christ Child House, Koh was motivated to do more. Even though Koh had surpassed all the service hours she needed for her Leadership minor, “I just couldn’t stop going,” Koh said.

She began to reach out to the other organizations she was a part of to round up volunteers to go to Christ Child House. She recruited people from the Pre-Dental Association, the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, Residence Life and her friends.

“I reach out to every organization I’m a part of to come help,” Koh said. “With the orphanage, I want each boy to have at least one person’s individual attention. Not five boys to one of us because they already don’t receive enough affection or attention. At least during that time, I want our volunteers to listen to them, hear them out, and whole-heartedly be there for them. Just give the boys that time while they are there.

“You just see the growth in these kids and it’s so crazy how they can go from, ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody,’ or the things they used to say, to now they say, ‘I want to go to college. I want to grow up and be a big brother to my little sister and go find her.’ To me, watching not only the kids, but also the volunteers emotionally express themselves, too, was — I think — the best thing that’s happened in my life, and it was all through that place. I don’t even know how else to say it. It’s been so many blessings, so many passionate people, and I couldn’t have done it by myself. A lot of different volunteers came through and really made an impact on these boys’ lives.”

Christ Child House supervisor Vance Teasley was blown away by Koh’s dedication and commitment to the boys. Teasley said Koh did a marvelous job organizing, and there has been a noticeable change in the boys.

“The change in the boys has been really positive. They’re so happy when she comes because of her involvement with them and her personality, coupled with what she’s teaching them. I can see a big difference and a change in their attitudes and dispositions. They gave the boys different life skills. They went from writing to speaking to dressing to etiquette, a bunch of basic things, but they were very necessary.

“On a scale from one to 10, I would have to give her an 11. The volunteers were all different kinds of people, athletes, basketball players, lacrosse players, some are going to dental school, they came from all over and different factions. For her to have it organized like she did was just a marvelous job. The vast amount of people involved is attributed to her tremendous effort.”

Once Koh succeeded in recruiting volunteers, the next step was to find more funding for the project. Koh set up fundraisers, but also thought outside the box.

Koh, along with her friend Asia Rawls, organized a charity fashion show at Detroit Mercy to benefit Christ Child House. Holding a fashion show was a radical idea and some doubted it would work, but through the leadership of Koh and Rawls, it was a huge success.

The fashion show raised money for Christ Child House and also led to Koh’s resident advisor, Miranda Dufresne, suggesting she submit a proposal to make her efforts with the orphanage an FCCP project.

Koh turned in a proposal, and it was approved. Part of the FCCP funding requires the service learning of the project to be incorporated into a class.

“We got it incorporated into five Chemistry courses,” Koh said. “Me and my project leaders were like, ‘We can do something easy like a class that’s already doing service learning or to a department that does not yet have service learning as a component of their classes.

“We felt that the Chemistry department needed more service learning because a lot of us are going into health, but don’t even know how to talk to people. A lot of chemistry students need service hours and don’t really have any. I know that because they’re my people. I talk to them every day. We talked to five different professors. They were very positive and very supportive about it. They were like, ‘Let’s try it.’ It was great, we had 300 to 400 people just come through and help the boys at the house or come to a career day that we had at the school. We had a dinner and awards ceremony for the boys. The boys don’t ever stop talking about the volunteers.”

The Boys 2 Men service project started with Koh, but it won’t end when Koh graduates from Detroit Mercy. Several members of the project will take over running it next school year. The hope is the project continues long term with leadership changing from year to year.

“It has to go on,” Koh said. “I’ll never know how to express how happy I am that it’s continuing. When we had the vision for it, we started in five chemistry courses, but our master plan and what we hope in our hearts, was for the whole school to adopt it one day. So that not only is it in Chemistry, but it’s in Architecture, Leadership, Business — so that these boys not only see all these Pre-Dental and Pre-PA students, but they get to see everything that they are interested in. Which kind of came together for career day, where there were 20 different organizations, and they got to see something besides just science. Right now, the boys are really biased towards science, many of them are like, ‘We’re all going to be scientists.’ But hopefully later down the road, they can see different aspects of what college can bring to them and they’ll want to come here more.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.


What people are saying about Sehie Olivia Koh

“She has not only reached out to an orphanage, she has enabled other students to do the same thing. ‘Hey we have this organization that does this, maybe it could be something for you guys.’ Then the guys went there and did something. That’s remarkable, especially with someone who doesn’t come from a privileged background. She has done most, if not all, of what she does basically driven by herself, by the understanding that this is something she can and should be doing. There are many students who are much more privileged than her, and they don’t understand much of this at all, which is sad, but a reality.” Detroit Mercy Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Klaus Friedrich.

“She likes to stay involved. I think she wants to have an impact and do something. She’s a doer. She doesn’t talk the talk, she walks the walk. I really think it’s her personality; it’s her gift; it’s something you really can’t explain. Some people just have that ‘it.’ You can’t explain it, you can’t mimic it, it’s original. She’s going to do very well in life if she keeps it up. I think it’s something she’s born with and she has that gift of personality, gift of connection. We all have these special things we can do. Some people can draw, some people can sing effortlessly; she can just be Olivia. At a small school like this, you need people like her to keep the energy up.” Charity fashion show co-founder Asia Rawls.

“She is a very special person. She has very creative ideas, and not only does she have these ideas, but she implements them and has the ability to do so on her own. Her drive, her creativity and her free-spiritedness, I haven’t really seen that before, and that’s what kind of drew me to her in the beginning. I always told her she has a vibe or a spirit about her, any time she meets someone, instantly, she connects well with them. Just instantly, and people can kind of pick up on that from her. She has just a genuine, good spirit and it rubs off on people. They can see it without her even having to speak. It’s just amazing.” Friend and Boys 2 Men volunteer Myron Hampton.

On a scale from 1 to 10, I would have to give her an 11. The volunteers were all different kinds of people — athletes, basketball players, lacrosse players, some are going to dental school, they came from all over and different factions. For her to have it organized like she did was just a marvelous job. The vast amount of people involved was a attributed to her tremendous effort.” Vance Teasley, Christ Child House.

“She’s a giver. Of her time, her energy, her wisdom. To me, the relationship we have together, she’s like a big sister. She challenges me to step out of my comfort zone and go for what I want, and not be scared. She’s a selfless person. She’s a leader inside and outside the classroom.” Friend and charity fashion show model Yarnise Hines.

Titan Talk with Sehie Oliva Koh and Asia Rawls