KAGC Student Spotlight: Henry, Columbia
“Not feeling connected to a community was a feeling that I experienced a lot growing up.”
Not feeling connected to a community was a feeling that I experienced a lot growing up. This was a combination of my family’s constant moves along with my dual identity as a Korean American. As a result, from an early age I had always wanted to change my environment. Rather than be “American” or “Korean”, I simply wanted a place where I could just be me. However, I didn’t understand how or what I could do to create such a place. As a result, I went through the majority of my middle school and high school life feeling out of place and disconnected. At the same time, my desire for change manifested itself through social activism. I took part in my school’s peer outreach service team, volunteered for Theatre of the Oppressed in New York, and tutored for charity. Still, I knew deep down that while I liked social activism, I wanted to affect change on a larger scale for a greater number of people.
It was at Columbia University that I not only found the community I belonged to, but the way in which I could support them. Having connected to the Korean American community at Columbia, I not only felt comfortable with my peers, but also confident of myself. At the same time, by joining clubs such as the Roosevelt Institute, I came to understand the power politics held in regards to not just my community but every community as a whole.
However, this presented its own set of problems. I had little to no experience in the field of politics. While I did keep up with the news and had no problem debating my friends or classmates on certain issues, I was a complete newbie when it came down to it. As a result, I once again felt lost and confused. Yet in an amazing coincidence, my mom told me about KAGC and their national conference that would be taking place this summer. Having never heard of KAGC before, I did some research only to quickly be very surprised and excited. This program was exactly what I had been looking for. The KAGC’s dedicated mission to bridging the Korean American community to American politics through civic engagement was a goal that I was definitely behind. With no hesitation, I quickly applied for the conference.
The same summer, I also interned at Congressman Josh Gottheimer’s district office. This experience not only helped me learn a lot about the inner workings of a political office, but also taught me invaluable political skills. I learned how to schedule events, filter relevant news articles, interact with constituents, and fulfill logistical duties such as memo writing and logging in a quick and substantive way. Furthermore, by constantly being immersed in a political atmosphere my own knowledge of current events and issues relevant to the Korean American community grew by bounds. As a matter of fact, I would say that my internship in Congressman Gottheimer’s office directly enhanced my experience at the 2022 KAGC National Conference. While I was initially nervous and worried on the train ride there, as soon as I met the other volunteers and fellows, I realized just how unfounded my fears were. Not only did my previous experience working in the district office help me quickly acclimate, but everybody was extremely welcoming as well.
In fact, I was surprised at just how many people had similar journeys to mine of finding the Korean American community and trying to give back to them. While many people were politically fluent, the resources at the conference were so accessible that anybody could have followed along with our discussions. Most importantly, it felt as if we were all there to learn from one another and do all we could for the Korean American community. This feeling was further emphasized to me on the second day of the conference when we actually went inside the U.S. Capitol building. Once again, while the experience was initially daunting, once I realized that I had the support of fellow KAGC volunteers behind me the stern offices and dignified representatives became less intimidating.
After getting over my initial nerves, I was able to fully immerse myself in this valuable experience. I would say that directly interacting with Congressman Bill Pascrell’s office was the highlight of the conference for me considering how he was representing my home district. Being able to talk to Dylan, the Legislative Director of the office, was an enlightening experience that showed me the complexities within advocating for nuanced policies for the Korean American community. This was also made much easier by how KAGC pinpointed impactful policies to us such as the Adoptee Citizenship Act and the Partner with Korea Act, which distinguished Korean American issues from Asian American issues where needed.
The most important thing I learned from KAGC, however, was how Congress operates and how legislators and the policies they create influence the lives of constituents in meaningful ways. Combining this knowledge with my service as a congressional intern for Rep. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) through the summer KAGC Congressional Fellowship made me think deeply about how to use the skills I had learned to advocate on behalf of other Korean Americans. The Fellowship experience along with the KAGC National Conference, have both educated and encouraged me to take more active actions in my own community. Without a doubt, I can say that I have come out of this summer with a true community to belong to.
Naturally, I won’t say that I’m done growing just yet. I know that as I go through college my identity will continue to change with new pieces being added every day. However, what I can now take comfort in is the fact that no matter how much I or the environment around me changes, there is a warm and welcoming community that I can always return to.
Henry Song is a current sophomore at Columbia University with an interest in Political Science. Before joining the 2022 Congressional Fellowship, Henry was actively involved in advocacy work through his participation in the Brain Food Program in New Jersey and the Theatre of the Oppressed in New York. Henry hopes to continue developing an understanding of politics and government and in turn, bridge the language of politics into action. Henry served in the District Office of Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5) as a part of the 2022 Congressional Fellowship cohort.
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.