International student drowned in Saluda River
Known for his infectious happiness, big personality and love for his Korean heritage, cooking and sports, Wonwoo Choi was a model of positivity to his many friends and teachers.
Choi, a student in USC’s English Programs for Internationals, drowned in the Saluda River Friday evening, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.
Choi, 22, and four friends were apparently trying to reach a rope swing on the other side of the river when Choi had trouble swimming and went under.
“He was a wonderful spirit, a real light — so helpful and agreeable; somebody that you felt the place brighten when you came in,” said Tom Wall, campus minister at Methodist Student Network. “He was very likeable, down-to-earth, a kind spirit.”
Choi, who studied international trade at Myongji University in Seoul, Korea, had found a home at USC in EPI’s close-knit international community. And, as noted by his friends and instructors, there was no bound to his all-consuming joy.
“I remember we taught each other how to say ‘cheer up’ in our native languages,” said Maria Soto Arrojo, Choi’s best friend and former EPI student. “When I was a little sad or stressed, he always told me, ‘Animo, Maria,’ which is the same sentence in Spanish.”
Arrojo, who now lives at home in Spain, lived with Choi at Cliff Apartments during their spring term at EPI.
“Many times we were able to understand each other without saying many words,” Arrojo said. “We used to laugh a lot and explained all that we had in our minds in a mixed English-Spanish-Korean.”
Outside of EPI, Choi attended weekly Thursday night dinners at Methodist Student Network, and quite simply, loved people. Octavio Goio, an EPI student and employee, remembers Choi’s love for parties and quickness to organize events to bring people together.
Arrojo said Choi loved to share time with his friends and meet new people.
“We talked more than once about the luck that we had to meet new people from other countries and to know new cultures,” Arrojo said.
Alisha Biler, Choi’s speaking and listening instructor at EPI, also remembers her student as a “very social person,” who was “well-liked by all his peers.”
“He was hardworking and motivated, but, more importantly, thoroughly unique,” Biler said. “I never failed to be surprised by his creative, humorous and thoughtful responses each class. When asked what his favorite English word was, he replied, ‘Will.’ In his words, it signified to him the ‘determination to accomplish your dreams.’”
His success and determination in his EPI classes was marked by all of his instructors, with Jason Christofi, Choi’s writing and grammar instructor, noting how respectful and unselfish his student was, as well as his efforts to go “over and above the requirements for the class.”
“I found Wonwoo to be the consummate team player and hard worker — eager to work in groups and in pairs and ready to raise his hand in response to a question. Wonwoo participated happily in all activities and always had a smile on his face,” said Marit Berg Bobo, Choi’s academic-reading instructor. “His presence added a genuine warmth to the class.”
Outside of class, Choi spent his Friday afternoons playing soccer — an FC Barcelona fan — and basketball.
“He also liked music, to play guitar and sing,” Arrojo said. “He had a beautiful voice. However, he didn’t have a guitar in Columbia, so he used to play all his friends’ guitars when he went to their apartments. He also taught us a lot of Korean singers and music. I think he was very proud of his country and his culture, because he also loved to cook Korean food for us.”
Choi planned to study at USC until December or January, hoping to learn as much English as possible. However, he was homesick, and excited to see his family, return to his university in Korea and prepare to be a first-time uncle to his cousin’s baby.
“He has been a very important person for many people and many friends in Columbia that have known him to be a wonderful person,” Arrojo said. “Many of us were very far from home when we met in Columbia, and we became like a family because we shared a long time together every day, and talked about not only our problems and sadness, but also our happiness and dreams. I think his most powerful virtue was his natural manner and, above all, his smile.”
Lan Ngoc Hoang, a health promotion, education and behavior doctoral student, said that she has “seen his positivity” in her friend’s untimely death.
“He had a very innocent heart, and he loved everyone,” Hoang said. “A very positive energy, very bright — he had no judgment. He was very helpful and giving.”
Choi’s ashes will return to Korea with his family, which arrived in Columbia for a memorial service Monday night.