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Music makes him Smile: WHS senior eyes career in music education

Worthington High School senior Smile Bu found his calling in music and plans to pursue a double major in music education and music performance at St. Cloud State University this fall. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — By the time most students enter kindergarten, they can recite their ABCs and count to 10.

When Smile Bu was enrolled in second grade in a St. Paul elementary school, he knew not one word of English.

Born in Thailand, Smile and his family came to the United States as refugees when he was about 8 years old. They spent their first several months in St. Paul before moving to Worthington midway through the school year.

“It was a brand new experience,” Smile shared. “My dad was the only one who could speak English at the time.”

Smile learned the language with the help of teachers and his peers.

“I hung out with a lot of American kids and just tried to blend in,” he said. “I tried to learn from what they said.”

Not only did Smile catch up to his peers in the classroom, he excelled. In little more than a week, he will don the decorative ropes reserved for students with highest honors before walking across the Worthington High School graduation platform.

It will be the second cause for celebration in as many months, as Smile and his younger brother, New, became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony in St. Paul in March. New is a junior at WHS.

It was just a year ago that Smile’s father earned his citizenship, while his mother became a U.S. citizen three years ago when his little sister, Grace, was born. That leaves Smile’s brother, Victory, a seventh-grader at Worthington Middle School, as the only one in the family yet to gain citizenship status.

The family speaks both Karen and English — Smile’s parents both took English classes through District 518’s Adult Basic Education program when they first moved to town — and just for something new, Smile enrolled in the German language class at WHS as a senior.

“I wanted to try a different language,” he said with a grin, adding that German is a tough one to learn.

While the German language may be testing his brain, the language of music has come easy for Smile, who sings in the school choir and still plays the trumpet he acquired as a fifth-grader.

“They had a testing to see what instruments you’d be good at,” Smile said. “The trumpet was good for me and I liked it too.”

In addition to concert and marching band, Smile plays in the WHS jazz band, and will join the ‘Amazing’ Worthington City Band for the first time this summer.

“Music … has been a part of me for a long time,” Smile shared. “It interested me since I was really small.”

Smile said he thought everyone liked music as much as he did. It wasn’t until he became a high school student that he realized not everyone was as enamored with music. Some students were more interested in math, and others in science or English.

“I was among the only kids looking at music,” he said of his post-secondary plans.

Smile will attend St. Cloud State University this fall, where he intends to double major in music education and music performance.

“My career dream is either to start my own band or be able to teach music to children,” he said.

While Smile credits his participation in band as the reason for his career choice, it may also have a bit to do with his parents.

“My parents encouraged me to do music a lot,” he said. “My mom and my dad, they formed a band in Thailand for a while.

“My dad played the guitar and my mom sang and my uncle would play the bass,” he added.

As a first-generation American, and the oldest of his siblings, Smile will be the first in his family to attend college. While that creates a sense of pride, it also creates a bit of apprehension.

“I don’t have anyone to ask how they experienced college,” Smile said.

Two of his friends will also be freshmen at St. Cloud State this fall, and Smile plans to keep busy by joining the campus band and getting involved in theater.

For the past two years, Smile was involved with the spring musical. He was cast as Jack in the 2018 production of “Into The Woods.”

“I would say the musical is one of the highlights of my high school career,” Smile said. “I just enjoyed the environment and all of the acting and the music.”

In addition to being on stage, Smile’s other high school activities included participation in soccer and tennis. He was inducted into the National Honor Society as a junior.

Smile credits his parents, Nyi Bu and Mue Tah, with his success as a student, saying they always encouraged him to study.

“It was really important to them that I get a good education,” Smile said. “Not just an education, but to enjoy my high school career.”

Smile also offered appreciation to his music teachers for their support and guidance, including Jon Loy and Kerry Johnson at the high school.

“I think all of the teachers have been really great,” he said. “In Prairie Elementary, (Jeanne) Mammen was pretty inspirational for me. She was my first music teacher.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at farmbleat.areavoices.com.

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