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From high school teacher to novelist: A&S alumna shares literary industry experience

“Being a mentor can take you to places that you might not have even imagined.”

Ann Choi - author portrait, head and shoulders

U of T alumna Ann Y.K. Choi became an alumni mentor in 2016. Photo: John Burridge.

As a student, Ann Y.K. Choi didn’t get much mentoring. Her parents worked impossibly long hours at the family’s corner store the family had emigrated from Korea when Choi was six years old and at U of T she was pretty much on her own.

“I was working multiple jobs to be in school,” she says. “I worked so much that at one point I became a part-time student. I didn’t join any clubs; I just came to school to get my degree and I left.”

Choi graduated in 1992 with an English degree, and followed a safe and traditional career path: she became a high school teacher, then a guidance counsellor. She didn’t know that the mentoring she had missed as a student was yet to come, from unexpected places.

Kay's Lucky Coin Variety bookcover

Ann Y.K. Choi’s bittersweet coming-of-age debut novel is set in Toronto’s Korean community in the 1980s.

Fast-forward to 2016. Choi was now a published author her debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, had just come out. And she got an email from the Faculty of Arts & Science inviting her to become an alumni mentor. “I was really excited,” she recalls. “It was like my second chance at becoming a part of the U of T community.”

Choi became a regular speaker at Faculty events, including the Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) series of networking evenings. And that’s where she met Tali Voron.

Voron was an undergraduate studying English, and trying to figure out if she could turn her passion for literature into a career.

“I always felt a lot of anxiety about, ‘okay, what am I going to do with my degree?’” she says. “I felt very limited because there’s a stigma around having an English degree.”

Voron heard Choi speak about her journey from high school teacher to published novelist a journey that had started when a student challenged her to practice what she preached as a guidance counsellor  that is, to follow her own dreams. “I was just so inspired by her talk that I came up to her and asked if she would like to go for coffee.”

That coffee went well. “She actually made me think,” says Choi. “because she started asking me questions about my own personal choices.”

One coffee turned into two, and more. And then the relationship turned on its head.

Tali Voron at microphone in front of audience

Tali Voron speaks at an event at the Knife Fork Book bookstore in Toronto, Feb. 24, 2018.

Voron was not just a student; she was also a publisher. In her second year at U of T, she had founded The Soap Box Press, to publish the work of emerging writers. And Choi was a long-time member of a writing group friends who had met a decade earlier in a creative-writing class.

Before long, the mentee made her mentor an offer: she would publish the group’s first anthology.

The book, Voices from the 11th Floor, was launched last November at From Pen to Published, a publishing fair for students and other aspiring writers, hosted by The Soap Box Press at Sidney Smith Hall and attended by more than 200 people.

And it all started when a mentor who had shared her story and saw her own wisdom reflected back at her.

“The biggest piece of wisdom that Ann gave me was that it’s okay to follow your dreams and to think big,” says Voron. “For me that was a huge thing. It’s very easy to feel a lot of pushback when you’re trying to start a writing career. You hear ‘this is not realistic, this is not worth putting your energy into.’ Seeing somebody who was able to do it can motivate you to do the same, and see the value in it.”

As a teacher and guidance counsellor, Choi has spent her whole career listening to students. Coming back to U of T as a mentor was both part of that journey, and a new step that changed her own life.

“Being a mentor can take you to places that you might not have even imagined,” she says. “Instead of taking from the university, which is what we do as students, I’m in a position now to give and serve. To me, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done, personally and professionally.”