Sungjin Yoo ’13 has always been intellectually curious. So the broad education he received at Calvin was a great fit.
“My Calvin experience was enriched because of the well-rounded education that I had,” he said. “And I continue to grow and learn something every day, both in and out of the office,” said Yoo, who works as in-house counsel for Ottawa Avenue Private Capital.
Because of the impact he’s made in his career as an attorney as well as his volunteer work, Yoo was named to the Grand Rapids Business Journal list of “40 Under 40” in 2020. Yoo serves as a board member for both World Affairs Council of Western Michigan and Metro Health Hospital Foundation impACT Board. He also mentors students at The Potter’s House High School.
HOW IT STARTED
Yoo was born in Seoul, South Korea, but spent much of his childhood in Grand Rapids when his father attended Calvin Theological Seminary. “Our whole family was embraced by the Calvin community and the church we attended, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church,” Yoo said.
When Yoo was in high school, his family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, but ended up back in South Korea his senior year. Why? The family’s immigration attorney inadvertently made a paperwork mistake. Yoo was always interested in studying law, and that experience solidified his goal of becoming an attorney.
“Calvin was appealing to me because it draws students from all over the world. I also knew the academics would prepare me well,” said Yoo, whose older brother was studying at Calvin at that time.
But the cost of the liberal arts education he wanted seemed daunting. Calvin and Yoo’s community stepped up to help. “I received a great scholarship and financial aid package from Calvin,” Yoo said. Family friends, including Herbert ’60 and Sharon ’64 Lantinga, also supported Yoo’s Calvin education.
“I’m so grateful,” Yoo said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. It sounds cliché, but in this case, it’s totally true.”
LANGUAGES SHARPEN SKILLS
Yoo loved his Latin courses in high school and was also interested in German. He ended up with three majors: classics, German, and international relations.
Yoo spent a semester abroad in Vienna, Austria, while at Calvin, and his German came in handy when he studied in Hamburg, Germany, during law school. He keeps up his skills by speaking the language with his German sister-in-law and friends, as well as listening to German podcasts.
The language and humanities courses he took at Calvin developed critical thinking skills and sharpened his writing. “I’m living proof that you don’t have to major in business to work at a private equity firm,” said Yoo.
Through his time at Calvin, Yoo continued to plan for a future as an attorney. “My pre-law adviser was Joel Westra. He is an awesome mentor, professor, and well-known scholar in international relations. We still keep in contact,” Yoo said.
In fact, Westra attended the Chuseok event hosted by Korean Connection that Yoo co moderated in fall 2019. The sold-out celebration of Korean thanksgiving featured Calvin students performing K-pop, as well as Korean food and time honoring Korean veterans. Proceeds from this event went toward supporting an orphanage in Korea.
Now, Yoo is helping Grand Rapids develop a sister city relationship with Gangnam-gu in Seoul, most recently serving as the interpreter for Grand Rapids at a meeting between the mayors.
“Our country and world have become polarized—there is so much animosity. Relationship-building opportunities like the ones that a sister city relationship provides are critical to a functioning and welcoming society,” Yoo said.