At the time, expensive sneakers were a fad among kids Tim’s age. “We wanted to buy him [the] sneakers because he never asked,” Jay Hwang says. “He said no. He said, ‘I saw so many kids without shoes who were barefoot.’ ”
That seminal trip led to the creation of Operation Fly in 2006. The 14-year-old Tim Hwang was too young to drive, so his father often took him and his friends downtown on weekends to pass out sandwiches and supplies to the homeless. The group also used mass transit to reach the distribution points.
After a couple of weeks, Tim Hwang’s organizational instincts kicked in. “In order to scale up the operation, I had my dad drive me up to Baltimore so that we could file as a nonprofit,” he recalls.
As a 501(c)(3), the group was able to fundraise, with its members tutoring and holding frequent bake sales to raise money for the organization. That’s when “my wife and I realized that he wanted to make a bigger impact,” Jay Hwang says. “He talked about how he wanted to be a politician later on. Our perception of politics was not that great: One of the reasons we emigrated was the political system [in South Korea]. We had concerns, but we thought it might be good to have him contribute to something political in a [positive] sense.”
At 16, Tim Hwang signed on as a regional field organizer with the 2008 Obama campaign, working out of the Bethesda office but traveling extensively to coordinate with volunteers in North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. It took him away from home on weekends, and he missed some school days. School administrators were “pretty lenient about it, and as time went on, they became more lenient,” Tim Hwang recalls with a chuckle.
By his junior year, he was campaigning for student school board member among a middle school and high school electorate of more than 60,000 students, and he was rarely in class. Winter, the social studies teacher, remembers Hwang stopping by to pick up the latest classwork and, sometimes, to seek political advice.
By senior year, Hwang was a member of the school board and taking courses at Montgomery College and the University of Maryland. “I didn’t have any more courses to take in high school,” he says. A year earlier, he’d passed his 22nd AP course at Wootton. Highly motivated students in the Montgomery County Public School system generally attempt to pass no more than one-third to one-half that number.
In 2009, the College Board designated Hwang a state scholar, noting that he’d passed the most AP exams of any student in the state that year.
Hwang says he “self-studied” for seven or eight of the tests; others were based on in-school or online courses even as he ran Operation Fly and volunteered for the Obama campaign.
“Freshman year, I didn’t find high school too challenging,” he says. “I just wanted to try to be in a place where I was really pushing myself. In high school, that manifests itself into taking a lot of incredibly challenging courses.”
During his yearlong tenure on the board of education, which coincided with the height of the Great Recession, Hwang mobilized students to lobby the Montgomery County Council as the board of education sought to mitigate budget cuts. He successfully convinced fellow board members to reverse a policy mandating that a student with five unexcused absences fail a class, arguing that it was “counterintuitive to be linking a disciplinary issue with an academic issue.”
Hwang fell short in the perennial effort to give the student member full voting rights on the school board. Even so, he built contacts with other student board members across the state as they lobbied the General Assembly on the issue.
Board of education member Shirley Brandman remembers Hwang using a video blog and social media to educate and organize fellow students.
“He is deeply aware of the power of the collective,” Brandman says. “But he understood that it just wasn’t about giving students a script: It was really about inspiring them and making sure they really understood the issues.”