As a freshman at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights four years ago, Don Kim dropped by Peggy Mansur’s office three times a week. Or five. Peggy was always happy to see him.
“How are your shoes fitting?” she’d ask. “Do we need to go up a size?” Or, “Would you like to see a doctor?” Or, “Are you communicating with your mom?” Sometimes, Peggy just touched Don’s hands.
“I made a promise to his mom that I would make sure he was OK mentally, physically and academically,” says Peggy, St. Thomas Academy’s admissions coordinator.
Thanks to Peggy, whose job title and heart expanded exponentially, Don is more than OK. He’s a confident, popular high school graduate who will head to the University of St. Thomas in the fall.
“She’s like my second mom,” says Don, who left his family in South Korea in eighth grade to attend New Prague’s St. Wenceslaus School on a Korean-American Exchange Program. “Without her, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I couldn’t stay in this country and go to school.”
At the end of his exchange year, Don didn’t want to leave the rigors of American academics.
“I realized that I needed a different world,” Don says, “an English-speaking country.”
With his parents’ support and the embrace of a series of host families, he entered the academy.
“People were surprised that I chose a military, Catholic, all-male, college prep school,” Don says. “More difficult challenges teach me better lessons.”
But Don is candid in admitting that looking different, and coming from a different cultural background, made for a tough transition. By the dark winter of his freshman year, he was struggling academically and desperately homesick.
Enter Peggy, who offered emotional support and kept her young charge current on schoolwork and immigration regulations. The following spring, Don’s mother moved to Minnesota and, Peggy says, “the fun began.”
Peggy found them an apartment near school, and furnished it with donations from students’ families. Don started gaining weight on his mother’s cooking. His grades picked up. Peggy stayed close, signing up Don for driver’s ed, doing airport runs for the family, hosting them for meals, and welcoming Don’s sister, Julie, who is now a student at Visitation School in Mendota Heights.
When a snowstorm canceled school in January, thus delaying the presentation of Don’s senior speech, Peggy was on the phone with the airline, the school and other students, to successfully extend his father’s stay in Minnesota to be able to witness this pivotal event.
“Of course I’m excited for him,” Peggy says of Don, who assures her that his St. Paul university is close enough for visits. “But it’s different when you’re not with them every day.”