This past summer, JoAnn Ahn was in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport for a layover on her way to visit family in South Korea when she noticed a world figure most high school kids wouldn’t have recognized.
In a lounge sat Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean diplomat who served as secretary general of the United Nations from 2007 to 2016. Ahn went over to introduce herself, and the North Forsyth High School senior proceeded to express her admiration for the UN’s work on environmental and human rights issues.
“He spoke to me and said, ‘People like you who are young and passionate are the reason why people are able to make change in the world,’” Ahn said. “It kind of spoke to me in such a big way, because he has such a big role in the world. It really inspired me.”
Ahn now knows her dream career: working at the UN.
To get there, Ahn plans to attend Georgia Tech where she’ll double major in environmental engineering and international affairs, a perfect complement of her passions.
Her interest in the environment seems to have come innately.
“If you really knew me — a lot of my friends if they really, really knew me — they know that I love the environment, and I would track down a person if they didn’t recycle their water bottle,” Ahn said. “I’d be like, ‘Hey, go throw that in recycling.’ And they always tease me about it.
“It’s just one of those things where ever since I was little I was in love with nature and the fact that I see so much damage happening to the environment, especially from human causes, it’s just been on my heart to pursue that.”
Her interest in international humanitarian causes grew more from personal experience. Her father owned a business in Lima, Peru, and Ahn remembers traveling with her mother to visit him when she was 11 years old. There she was exposed to levels of poverty she hadn’t previously experienced. Ahn was struck by the peoples’ dire circumstances, but also the joy that persisted.
“So many people are hurting out there,” Ahn said. “I kind of feel like I don’t want to be a part of the reason why people look at statistics and say, ‘Hey, that’s just the way humanity is.’ I want to (help) find solutions to problems.”
Ahn found a way to do that at North. She was co-president of Simple Charity, a student organization that aimed to raised $100,000 to fight global poverty. She was a Raider Commander who mentored freshmen. She served on the school’s Student Council and was vice president of Class Council as a sophomore and senior.
To find out more about JoAnn, the FCN sat down with her at North to talk about school, passions and the future.
Question: What college did you choose to go to?
Answer: I’m going to attend Georgia Tech this fall. I want to pursue engineering, so I saw that it was the best fit for me to go to one of the best universities in the country that offers engineering, especially since it’s in state.
Q: What do you have planned as your future major?
A: I’m double-majoring in environmental engineering and international affairs. A little bit of both science and social studies.
Q: What was your favorite subject?
A: I really love everything. I find myself in so many different areas of study. I would say my favorite class of all time would be AP U.S. History and AP Calculus.
Q: What was your least favorite subject?
A: I just finished a Georgia Tech math class, and I looked at math differently this year. I took linear algebra and multivariable calculus, and I just realized there’s a lot of math out there. I didn’t really enjoy the experience.
Q: Who was your favorite teacher?
A: That’s such a hard question. There are so many. But overall, my ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. (James) Bassett. He has such a big role in everyone’s freshman year experience. And I think Ms. (Amanda) Swofford for AP Calculus. I’m the type of person who asks so many questions, because I need to know why. She would explain so patiently, and she just loves her kids. And Mr. (Josh) Montesinos. He’s just a fun, energetic guy. He just loves history, and he wants you to love history, and he makes the class feel like 10 minutes.
Q: Do you have a favorite school tradition?
A: The homecoming parade. It’s honestly one of the most fun things ever. One year you could throw candy at students waiting outside. I had the privilege of being in it last year and this year for Homecoming court, and it was so much fun. It’s just one of those moments where everybody comes together.
Q: What was your best school memory?
A: Two years ago, when one of our own passed away, Trent Basden. I was on the committee for Unite Forsyth for a night in May where we could just come together and have worship. That was planned ahead of time. And then, all of a sudden, that same week, Trent passed away in a freak accident. It was two days before the event was supposed to happen. It was just so crazy to everybody. I didn’t know him personally, but he did take my orders at Chick-Fil-A. We all knew what kind of person he was. We had the Unite Forsyth service, and so many people came, and we celebrated his life. It was one of those very special times. I think a lot of people were touched by it.
Q: What has been your toughest challenge in high school?
A: I think befriending people that are very, very different from me. I used to be very introverted. Freshman year I was terrified of seniors, of upperclassmen. But I met so many great upperclassmen that year, and they really mentored me. They really helped me out. I saw how they treated underclassmen and how they carried themselves, I really wanted to embody that. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m very extroverted, but I’ve come out of my shell quite a bit.
Q: Favorite TV show?
A: The Office.
Q: Senior-year song?
A: “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart would have to be the ideal senior song.
Q: What is your least favorite household chore?
A: This is going to sound really weird, but I really like chores. Like washing dishes and cleaning is my jam.
Q: What are you most talented at?
A: I love music, so I play piano, and I play the guitar. A little bit of ukulele.
Q: What are you least talented at?
A: I think one of my biggest insecurities is catching something. Like anything. If people throw me a shirt or a pen or a football, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to catch this!’ I need to figure out my hand-eye coordination skills.
Q: What is something many don’t know about you?
A: I participated in junior-senior wars, and a lot of people are surprised when I tell them I teepeed somebody’s house the night before Homecoming court and the day of a test. I hope my image doesn’t become tainted. It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I won’t ever do it again.
Q: What are your career aspirations?
A: One of my biggest dreams is working for the United Nations. Whether that be an ambassador or working with children or for UNICEF or that kind of thing, that would be awesome. But realistically, probably just finding a non-profit organization that I can work for. The people the world turns their face away from, I have a heart to find those people and help their situation. Not be their savior but show them that life (can) get better. If any career offers me that (chance), I’m in.
Q: Do you have any advice for next year’s seniors?
A: Just the idea of not wishing it away. Not wishing away your year. Not rushing the year. Just really soaking in every moment you have with your friends and your teachers and the community you probably won’t see next year when you go to college.