Pyon Su, America’s First Korean College Student

Pyon Su, 1891
Pyon Su, 1891

This June marks the 123rd anniversary of the graduation of Maryland Agricultural College cadet Pyon Su. Pyon Su was the first Korean student to receive a degree from any American college or university and is a highly venerated figure in his native land. The University of Maryland is proud to claim him as one of our most notable alumni, and the Pyon Su Room in The Stamp is named in his honor.

Pyon Su was born in Korea in 1862 and became involved in national politics at an early age when he passed a very difficult exam to become a high-level government officer in Korea. Through his political connections, Pyon Su was chosen as one of the diplomats charged with establishing the first Korean Embassy in 1883. As a result, Pyon Su was one of the first Koreans to travel around the world, even meeting U.S. President Chester Arthur in New York on one occasion.

A short time after his return to Korea, Pyon Su and his closest friends became actively involved in the political turmoil sweeping his homeland. Pyon Su’s actions as an extreme reformist in this conflict led officials to label him a traitor and an enemy of the Korean government. Facing the penalty of death, Pyon Su and his friends were forced to flee their beloved Korea using money stolen from Hong Kong. Pyon Su’s family was not as lucky, and many of them are believed to have been sentenced to death for his crimes.

After a short time in Japan, Pyon Su’s group landed in San Francisco and traveled to the Washington, D.C. area. It was here that Pyon Su decided to pursue his studies in agriculture. He attended the Maryland Agricultural College (MAC) and was determined to work extremely hard to obtain his bachelor of science degree. Pyon Su met several new friends in America who supported him and even treated him as family. With this encouragement, Pyon Su thrived in his studies and earned his degree in June 1891. He also landed a part-time job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published a report on the agriculture of Japan.

Calvert's Store and train station, College Park, Maryland, c.1900
Calvert’s Store and train station, College Park, Maryland, c.1900

Tragedy struck just four months later. Pyon Su was reported to be traveling home from his alma mater on October 22, 1891, when he was struck by a train at College Station (the railroad crossing in College Park) and killed. It is unclear whether his death was an accident, but some sources suggest that Pyon Su may have ended his own life in despair over his exile from his homeland. This is a heart-breaking ending to a story of a man who fought for everything he desired and who set an outstanding example for Korean students in America. Pyon Su is buried in a cemetery in nearby Beltsville, MD.

Pyon Su's original gravestone
Pyon Su’s original gravestone. Photo courtesy of Dave Ottalini.

Richard Calvert, grandson of MAC founder Charles Benedict Calvert and one of Pyon Su’s college friends, served as a pallbearer at his funeral and came into possession of Pyon Su’s diploma. This document was passed down through the generations of the Calvert family and then returned to the Pyon family in summer 2012. Harold Pyon, great-great-great nephew of Pyon Su, determined that this important part of his family’s heritage should be returned to the University of Maryland, Pyon Su’s alma mater. He presented the diploma to Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Clement in a ceremony in the Pyon Su Room on November 2, 2012. This significant piece of our history now resides in the University Archives and is available for viewing upon request.

Pyon Su diploma
Click to see a larger version of Pyon Su’s diploma.

One thought on “Pyon Su, America’s First Korean College Student

  1. Pingback: Preserving the past: Treating Pyon Su’s diploma | Terrapin Tales

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