The man behind the money
Funding, finance and full-time efficiency: Union treasurer Choon Woo Ha '08
Student Union Treasurer Choon Woo Ha '08 walks through the Shapiro Campus Center with the air of a CEO and the knowledge of an experienced entrepreneur. Clutching his cell phone and a walkie talkie (one of his assistants holds the other), he no longer looks like just another student.His demeanor suggests business and his workspace in the Student Union office, on the third floor of Shapiro, seals the deal. His desk, only used by Ha and his assistants, is a meticulously categorized array of papers, folders and financial forms, and even comes with a "family photo."
"My lovers," he says as he picks up a framed picture of him and his treasury team. "I'm such a family man that I treat the office of the treasurer as my family," he says. Ha spends an average of 40 to 60 hours per week organizing the student body's finances. On any regular day, he wakes up before 6 a.m. and goes to bed well after midnight. It's not even unusual for him to sleep in the Union office, he says.
"The only thing that's the same about my days is that they're all busy," Ha says.
Each morning he glances over a professional-looking printout of his schedule, carefully put together by Tia Chatterjee '09, his executive assistant.
Alison Schwartzbaum '08, who was Union president when Ha became treasurer, remembers thinking: "OK, who is this Choon Woo guy?" when he ran for the position. Her very first impression of him as a quiet guy at a candidates' meeting in the Student Union office, turned out not to be fully accurate.
"He just sat there. . It seemed to me that he did not know what he was getting himself into," she says. Now, almost two years later, Ha has transformed the position into a full-fledged office of the treasurer that consists of eight people.
While these days it's hard to imagine a Student Union without him, Ha says he'd never even heard of the Union's existence until he ran for treasurer.
The position of the treasurer is known to be one of the most demanding in the Student Union. Ha ran in a special election for Union treasurer in 2006 after then-treasurer Harrison Chizik '07 left the University.
"It was just one of those days," he says. "For some reason, I decided to run."
Ha defeated Brian Paternostro '08, who had been involved in Union's reforms of club financing, which made more Student Activities Fee money available for many campus clubs, while cutting the funds that secured campus organizations get. When Ha became treasurer this new policy had barely been tried out yet.
Ha started campaigning. "Every day I wanted to do it more," Ha says. "And miraculously, I won."
"It was absolutely impossible for one person to do that job," Chizik, who was in office for only a couple of weeks, says. "It's impossible to be both treasurer and a student."
But Ha has managed to be just that. After his first year, he appointed six assistants to help him do his job and added another one at the beginning of this semester.
Assistant Treasurer Deborah Laufer '08 describes Ha's leadership style as professional and corporate. "He's done things in my time here that no one has been able to do," she says. "I can't imagine that he did this all alone last year; it's insane."
But after his first term as treasurer, Ha says, "I was crazy to run again."
"It's a nonpaid, full-time job," Ha says. "I did sacrifice a lot of things: weekends, academics, free time, soccer, social life. . But I was willing to sacrifice it because I loved what I was doing."
While the Student Union occupies the majority of his time, there is one habit he has not changed since becoming treasurer: his religion. Every Sunday Ha attends services at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass., where he used to be part of the gospel choir. He quit the choir because of time constraints.
"The first thing I did when I came to the States was find the right church for me," Ha says.
Besides being a full-time student and Student Union treasurer, Ha also works as a security guard at large-scale campus events and works in lower Usdan during Sunday morning brunch. Ha used to work in Usdan much more, but had to cut down due to his duties as treasurer.
Ha confesses that he sometimes takes his job a little too seriously, "but money affects everyone." Money, he says, does not only affect the Brandeis student body, but is important to real world matters.
When Ha gets carried away and forgets he is just a student, his assistants are there to keep him down to earth. "I just tell him, 'Choon you're not as important as you think you are,'" Chatterjee says.
"He comes across a lot tougher than he actually is," she continues.
But there is more to Ha than his tough business side. His friends and assistants agree that he's "crazy" and have stories to back that up.
Jahfree Duncan '09, another member of the office of the treasurer, has many outrageous memories from their first year at Brandeis.
"He's toned down since his first year here," Duncan says. He remembers an incident in which Ha walked into his room in the middle of the night and told him to come exercise with him. "I told him to get out of my room," Duncan says.
Ha says he gets angry often, and recalls one time when he got frustrated and threw a fan in the Union office.
"He made the office very interesting sometimes," Schwartzbaum remembers.
Memories of a crazy and aggressive Ha aside, his friends think highly of him. "He's really smart," Duncan says. "He told me he got a perfect 800 on SAT math, but I think he's lying!" he jokes.
But Duncan continues in a more serious tone, "He doesn't lie. He jokes but doesn't lie."
In fact, Ha first visited the United States when he was in eighth grade, and came to Washington, D.C. for a tournament called MATHCOUNTS. The competition included the top four mathematicians from every American state and four students from U.S. State Department-sponsored international schools. Ha attended as one of the international mathematicians.
While born in Seoul, South Korea, Ha lived in the Philippines for most of his life. He attended International School Manila, of which he has very fond memories. "I loved it," he reminisces. "It was the best time of my life."
"His energy and drive were contagious for other students," Keith Jones, one of Ha's high school counselors, wrote in an e-mail to the Justice. "Choon Woo is passionate about being innovative and creative. He seeks out challenges for himself and works to find his limits or, more often, redefines them."
Ha's 18-year-old brother Eun Woo Ha, a freshman at Cornell University, remembers many squabbles with his older brother when they were growing up.
He recalls multiple instances in which their parents had to make a trip to the emergency room to get either one of their foreheads stitched.
Yet, despite the many violent anecdotes ("I can't really think of nonviolent related things"), Eun Woo says, "He's actually caring as a brother."
"When I heard he became treasurer, that cracked me up," Eun Woo says.
Ha, a graduating senior, will join the South Korean army after graduation, as all male Korean citizens are required to serve for two years. A few years ago, he was hesitant about going into the army. "Now, I want to go," Ha says. "I was born as a Korean for a reason. It's my duty as a citizen."
Joining the Student Union has defined his life at Brandeis, and Ha says he will be sad to leave it behind. "I am going to miss it so much," he says. He pauses for a minute and stares into space. A faint smile forms on his lips. "It has become part of my life. I'm really going to miss it.