KAGC Alumni Spotlight: Soo Lee
Here, I finally found the sense of belonging — I had never expected to see such a big group of Korean Americans interested in civic and political engagement. This experience immensely inspired me, instilled in me a level of confidence, and encouraged me to step forward into the political field.
Immigrating at the age of 14, I struggled to find my identity in America — I was never “American” enough nor “Korean” enough. Through puberty, I was even more confused and frustrated growing up as a Korean immigrant in America. My signature straight front bangs and broken English made me stand out as the “fob” (fresh off the boat, or fresh off the Bihaengi) which made it so easy for ridicules in high school. My insecurity from these years motivated me to passionately “Americanize” myself for acceptance and approval from those around me, including Korean Americans.
I changed my outfits, hair color, makeup style as well as my interest more towards American pop culture rather than that of Korea. Pretending to be “white-washed” or a second-generation Korean American eventually opened up a chance to connect with some people, but I still felt out of place. I got to understand what it’s like for Americans of Korean descent a little bit, but not enough. Every time I faced cultural barriers, I was consistently told, “it is because you’re not from here.” All too aware of my upbringing in Korea, I naturally saw myself as a foreigner.
I felt isolated from the Korean-speaking community, as well.
Knowing how much my family struggled due to the language barrier, I felt for those who shared the difficulty and wanted to lend a helping hand as much as I could. I wanted to help the recent immigrants feel welcomed and optimistic, because my family didn’t get to when we first arrived. But by this point, I was perceived as way too Americanized; Feeling rejected by my own communities, I started to resent my cultural identity, hide my bilingual skills, and refuse to get involved in my communities.
My time in America was too awkward. All my Korean friends either came here early as a child or late in college, and my Korean American friends were all born in the U.S. unlike me. Having nobody I can relate to, my self-esteem nose-dove, and I hated myself for being Korean, blamed my parents for bringing me to America “too late,” and speaking Korean better than English.
It wasn’t until I got to college in 2016, that my attitude started turning positive. Starting a new chapter of my life at the University of Southern California also provided me with a sense of optimism to chart my own path and start my own community. In hopes of creating a supportive group that would welcome “all types of Koreans,” I started to actively search for existing social clubs and other students who shared the vision.
Along the way, I got to meet friends who share a similar immigration story with me. It was a refreshing change of pace for me, and thanks to this sense of encouragement that I felt for the first time in years, I was inspired to now focus on my strengths rather than my weaknesses. “How can I put my skills so that others can feel welcomed and included?” I started asking myself.
Serendipitously, I had an opportunity to volunteer at the USC’s Annenberg Media Center as a multimedia journalist in my first year. With the upcoming presidential election at the time, it was one of the busiest years for the broadcasting team, and I was offered to report on political news in both the United States and in Korea where a presidential impeachment had gone in full gear. Although translating was my daily duty as a daughter of an immigrant family, this opportunity felt special to me.
Working on these assignments, I had a chance to share the current affairs of both of my cultural backgrounds to the diverse groups of people on campus. At the same time, it was an opportunity for me to learn about historical backgrounds and current political issues — and more importantly, I could start seeing myself become the bridge between communities of different cultures. With this newly found passion, I began exploring for more opportunities and guidance to see if I can “fit in” the political field.
Frankly, I had never thought an immigrant like me would be able to enter the political field. Retrospectively, that was because I had repeatedly heard from others that I am not “from here.” Not to mention, the rising anti-immigrant sentiment overwhelmed my new passion for public service day in and day out. This time, though, I wanted to try and overcome this barrier and see if I can find a seat at the table. I wasn’t going to find a side like back in high school but create a place for myself.
While seeking guidance, my friend Jess recommended that I attend the KAGC National Conference in the summer of 2017. Hearing about a potential opportunity to engage in a new field that I had never imagined myself in, I was anxious and excited at the same time. Since the program described a conference for Korean American students, I wondered if I would belong there because, to be honest, I was scared to get rejected by my community again. Visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, I got on the airplane with hope to find the answer to my new passion.
When I arrived at the event, I was shocked. I had never expected to see such a big group of Korean Americans interested in civic and political engagement. What encouraged me even more than the sheer volume of participation was the presence of Korean American young adults like me from all across the nation who gathered with one goal — speaking up for our community. This experience immensely inspired me, instilled in me a level of confidence, and encouraged me to step forward into the political field. Most importantly, I felt included in my own community. Here, I finally found the sense of belonging.
KAGC opened the door for me to network with college students who have similar interests and career goals as I do. I got to hear about their backgrounds and connect through our shared struggles. KAGC programs not only supplemented areas where I needed more clarity such as history and political science, but also put me out of my comfort zone with a new experience.
Second day of the national conference was the “Day of Action” on which I got to explore and experience a glimpse of a life on Capitol Hill through talking to members and staff of Congress about issues of our community that otherwise could have gone overlooked. When my group addressed the immigration issue, I shared my personal experience to let them know why this matters to my community and our district. The opportunity to join the KAGC program, that I discovered by happenstance thanks to my thoughtful friend, truly opened my eyes to what and how I can contribute to my community.
I was encouraged to continue not only find the opportunities to connect with people like me, but also create an opportunity for us to continue to voice up.
After my first experience with KAGC, I felt encouraged to accomplish two things: pursuing a master’s degree in public diplomacy and starting my own campus cultural community. I wanted to learn more about U.S.-Korea relations and how I can play a diplomatic role. While researching, I found out about the public diplomacy program at USC which has since provided me with a clear guidance in the career path I wished for myself.
I also took action to create my own community on campus. Rather starting a new organization, I wanted to build upon a pre-existing campus club, so I joined a student-run theatrical organization called Korean Culture Night. I first joined as a student actress, then took on a behind-the-scenes staff role as the associate producer. We tried setting up new approaches to bring both groups of who identify as “Korean” and “Korean American” and create a safe space where students are welcomed and our common culture is celebrated, so they can break down negative stereotypical images of each other stemming from cultural misunderstandings.
I planned out KCN outreach events to learn about Korean history (Korean independence movements, activists, Korean Immigration history, etc.) and K-town fellowship (visiting Korean restaurants). Through these gatherings, we found similarities between ourselves and allowed us to open up and connect at a deeper level. Visibly seeing improvements in the group dynamic, I began to feel proud of who I am, accepting and embracing my own identity more than before.
Based on my own journey of re-discovery and inspiration drawn from my experience with KAGC, my production team and I in 2019 decided to portray a story of varying immigration experiences, inter-generational conflicts in our community, language barriers and cultural differences, and the Korean American identity. This show not only reached the greatest ticket sales of our organization’s history, but also provided a tremendous amount of emotional support to our own members, their families, students on campus, and even others nearby USC. The accomplishment — creating my own safe space, connecting with my own groups, and celebrating our culture — has taught me to love my Korean American identity and empower my community.
My experience with KAGC definitely and deeply inspired me to reciprocate the tremendous guidance I received from KAGC to my own community at every opportunity possible. As I graduated from USC, I took the opportunity to attend the KAGC National Conference again in 2019, but this time as a volunteer. Along with me, I also brought 7 students from USC so that they too can get this amazing KAGC experience.
Although I am not perfect nor ready to become a “mentor figure” to someone, I am grateful that I could be someone who can understand other immigrant students’ struggles on defining their own identity and the right place to start their first civic engagement.
My participation as a volunteer at the 2019 KAGC National Conference has confirmed my career path in public service. I hope to continue connecting with more and more Korean American students through KAGC and supporting them to find a place in our country: and even help some of these students a seat in the U.S. Congress in the future. Thank you KAGC!
Soo graduated from the University of Southern California with a master’s degree in public diplomacy in 2019, with a goal of serving as the bridge between her motherland and homeland based on the inspiration she drew from the 2017 KAGC National Conference where she felt empowered to speak up for the voiceless around her. Soo has joined the 2019 KAGC National Conference as a volunteer and since been active in several community service and civic engagement initiatives in her hometown in Southern California.
Currently, Soo serves as Field Manager in the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman.
Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters for opportunities to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy.