University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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Winter 2010

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Alma Matters

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Forever grateful, Sang Hahn shares his success

By Kevin Bertelsen

sang
Sang and Hyeong Sik Hahn holding his 2008 Distinguished
Alumnus portrait.

“If I were to give you advice, it would be to act. When you see opportunity, don’t just think—act. People who reach their goal are the ones who act on their thoughts.”

Those words from Sang Hahn, the 2008 Distinguished Alumnus, echoed through row after row of graduates at Fall Commencement 2008 in Knowles Center. The highly successful Silicon Valley real estate entrepreneur and noted philanthropist returned to campus last year to receive the award and deliver the keynote address.

“He talked about gratitude,” says Terry Brown, who was then serving as interim provost of the university. “His message reminded students that all things are possible. And that they should never stop being grateful.”

One of the things Sang Hahn was most grateful for in his life was the mentorship of Charles Kao, his economics professor and UWRF advisor. Professor Kao encouraged him, supported him, and provided him with an office where he could study. Hahn proved to be a good student and completed his master’s degree in two years.

“I did not hear from Sang Hahn for years until the spring of 2005,” says Kao. “He was now very successful in real estate and wanted to make a contribution to our Foundation in honor of my name—his gift, he said, represented his gratitude to me for teaching and encouraging him 30 years ago. I’m sure the Hahns will continue to use their fortune to help the less privileged and make donations to those who impact their lives.”

Hahn also compared the current economic hard times with his early struggles.

Born in 1938 in Japanese-occupied Korea, his early years were filled with struggle and uncertainty as his war-torn country became the frontline of the Cold War. During the Korean War, separated from his family, the teenage Hahn battled for daily survival in the streets of Seoul.

The war impoverished the country, but Hahn managed to complete high school, work to save money, earn a college degree, and become a high school teacher. For years he harbored a desire to come to the United States for additional education and more opportunity for his children. Finally, in 1974, he brought his wife and young children—ages 9, 7, and 5—to River Falls and pursued his graduate program in economics. It was hard work.

After earning his degree from UWRF, Hahn selected the burgeoning Silicon Valley as home base for his operations and invested in an apartment complex. Working 16-hour days as the apartment’s gardener, maintenance man, painter, manager and promoter, he was able to sell the complex for a $300,000 profit. He had developed a formula for success in the real estate business that would allow him to eventually share the wealth he had accumulated.

“Because I owe so much to the United States and UW-River Falls, I’d like to return some of my wealth,” he says. Hahn says he has given generously to UWRF in order to help other students like himself in hopes of creating a greater focus on international students and globalization.

“He really shares our vision of a global campus,” says Brown. “Sang Hahn is an example of how important it is for international students to get an experience at an American university. Just this past week I met with students from Istanbul, and from Shanghai—young people who were spending their second and third days in the U.S. right here in River Falls—and I saw the enthusiasm, optimism, and gratitude in their eyes that reminded me of Sang Hahn. His life was truly changed by his experience here and by the faculty who mentored him.”

It’s about being grateful to those who have helped you succeed, Hahn says. “Be grateful for people who teach you, who show you kindness, who share a vision of success.”

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