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Chemistry

John Yi ’03

Science Department Chairperson and Chemistry Teacher, Millburn High School

I entered Princeton in the fall of 1999 with the goal of eventually going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. From an early age, I always had envisioned myself as a doctor. Or perhaps more accurately, my parents always had envisioned me as a doctor. As the son of Korean immigrants, I believed that I had little choice but to acquiesce to their dreams and pursue such a career path. During my freshman year, I took organic chemistry and was well on my way. 

When it came time for me to declare a major during sophomore year, I vacillated among a number of different options. I finally decided upon chemistry; it was my favorite subject in high school, and it also seemed like a very practical choice considering the requirements for medical school. At the same time, however, I began to question whether medicine really was the right path for me. The idea of helping others was certainly very appealing, but for some reason I just didn’t see myself as a doctor. After much soul-searching, I realized my two passions: chemistry and helping youngsters. Much to the disappointment of my parents, I began to consider the possibility of becoming a high school chemistry teacher. 

Not surprisingly, becoming a high school teacher is not a common career aspiration among Princeton undergraduates. After doing a little bit of investigating, I learned that Princeton has a rather small program devoted to helping students pursue such a career. I visited the Program in Teacher Preparation and spoke with several staff members about how to go about becoming a public school teacher. Everyone at “Teacher Prep” was incredibly helpful and supportive, and they all played an instrumental role in helping me to develop the courage to pursue my passion. 

Combining passions with success

Through Teacher Prep, I was able to fulfill the requirements to become certified as a public school teacher in New Jersey, earning a certificate in teacher preparation along the way. My senior thesis adviser, Andrew Bocarsly, also was incredibly supportive in nurturing my desire to pursue teaching. My thesis involved research on hydrogen fuel cells, and with his guidance I was able to develop a curriculum to teach the chemistry of fuel cells to high school students. This fuel cell curriculum also became a chapter in my thesis.

Upon graduating from Princeton in 2003, I went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and obtained my master of science in chemistry. I returned to Princeton in the fall of 2004 to do my student teaching at a local high school. Since December 2004, I have been working as a chemistry teacher at Millburn High School in Millburn, New Jersey. Over the years I also have served as a cross country and track coach as well as a coach for our school’s quiz bowl team. In 2010, my position at Millburn changed to that of science department chairperson, where I now combine my teaching duties with various administrative and supervisory responsibilities.

My studies at Princeton prepared me more than I ever would have imagined. The Department of Chemistry provided me with a solid understanding of the chemical principles underlying the world in which we live, while the Program in Teacher Preparation nourished within me a spirit of service through teaching. I fondly think back to my Princeton years and am incredibly grateful for how my undergraduate experience has prepared me to teach and guide our youngsters. As for my parents, they have since come to terms with my career choice, realizing that I am in this profession for the long haul. I think it helps when they see that I am doing something I truly love. I wake up every morning excited about the school day ahead!

Yi-John