KAGC Student Spotlight: Katie, UCSD

Katie at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

In 1975, my father’s family immigrated to the United States from Daegu, South Korea, hoping to achieve the American dream. To escape from their financial instability, upon arrival my grandmother worked at a sewing contractor in downtown Los Angeles day and night: not only to make a living, but also to support seven of my relatives all by herself. I still remember my dad laughing off at his daily routine in which he had to drop off grandma, grandpa, and six other relatives of his before he could get to his school because he was the eldest one in the family.

After school, he had to rush to a burger joint where he was paid $1.25 an hour, just to earn extra money for the household. My father strove to pursue his degree with the pressure of being the oldest child in the family. He had to show that working harder and earning degrees to achieve the American dream for which his parents traded their livelihoods in South Korea. My father was the epitome of the “model minority,” a still-pervasive stereotype cast on Asian Americans, never knowing that his tears and the struggles would later be used to disintegrate the racial minority groups who had worked not any less hard than he did. Fortunate enough to successfully finish degrees, my dad went back to Korea for a job and would later make an important, but difficult, decision to send his daughter to the States in the future.

As you can see, my family’s immigration narrative is not unlike that of many others — at least, up to this portion of the story. I think that understanding the immigration story is essential to understanding how we in the younger generation shape our identities, slightly different from those of our parents and predecessors.

Katie and her father at a National Park in California

Unlike most of my friends, who identify themselves as “generation 1.5” or “second-generation” Korean Americans, it wasn’t until I got to high school that I experienced what it’s like to be Korean in America. Arriving here at the age of 15, I may have spent less time in the States than did my peers; however, my identity crisis as a Korean American did not prevail any weaker than that of other people. In fact, my challenges approached me from additional aspects.

Throughout my upbringing in Korea, I got to see up close the impact of political participation through my dad who has worked with public policy and political strategy for years. I have always had a genuine interest in public affairs and felt confident that I too can potential exert political impact for the greater good of society like my dad. From small problems in my neighborhood to bigger issues on the national level, I could easily tie my identity with the society.

Maybe because I had felt such a strong sense of civic responsibilities and of my Korean identity, the transition process I was put into in this new country came as a shock. Especially because of the language barrier, my confidence suffered a major blow and I had a hard time “integrating” into the American culture as quickly as I wanted.

Katie on International Day at her high school in California

Everything I had been used to now felt like a huge disadvantage to me. This confusion and self-doubt only exacerbated as I started majoring in political science, a field I have always been committed to pursue since as far back as I can remember. But knowing that I am not a U.S. citizen, I subconsciously started reminding myself that “I don’t fully understand what it means to be American” and everything I learned in class and the news started feeling more and more distant to me. And I started feeling helpless. Every time I tried to encourage my friends on campus to vote or phone bank for local political campaigns, I asked myself, “Wait, I’m not even an American. Am I really supposed to be doing this?”

All the issues I’ve always been passionate for now felt way too big for me to make any change, let alone continue to voice my opinion. I felt detached from everything around me: I was part of this community, but at the same time, not really a part of this society.

It was at this point that (thankfully) I got to learn about the Korean American Grassroots Conference. At the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit held in January in Washington D.C., my perspective shifted drastically on the power of my identity both in the Korean American community and in this country. Over the three short days there, I got to witness so many passionate people who work hard to uplift our community, raise awareness of the key issues that affect us, and speak up for not only this community but for all those marginalized in the blind spots of the hegemonic political system that acquiesces many problems to continue to fester — not the least of which is racial division.

Katie on Capitol steps during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

By participating in the KAGC programs, I realized that I too could make changes. And we, together, can make lasting impacts. More importantly, I learned that my sense of belonging to this community or self-confidence does not depend on my English proficiency. Regardless of my immigration status, as long as I’m here, I am just as much of an active stakeholder of my community and have a right to be part of the conversation, too.

I still remember the night during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit, where all of my group members stayed after the program and encouraged each other to share our own experiences and be more confident about voicing up opinions. No one told us to stay longer or do additional work, but all of us more than voluntarily stayed to uplift one another and to support each other thoughts. I had barely seen any of my group members, but something about this bond made me feel as if we were one big family. In fact, it is what filled my heart up with so much warmth: the people I’ve got to meet in the KAGC network always kindly reminds me of my background and this community with whom I share so many experience and culture with, small and large.

Katie and students from California ran into Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez while visiting congressional offices during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

No matter what our backgrounds or immigration stories may be, the fact that we stem from the same heritage and share common struggles never changes. There is far more in common among all of us than our differences, and embracing ourselves within the community is an important job left to us the younger generations.

Moreover, just as importantly, we must bring our community, voices, and narratives to politics. It is why I joined the KAGC network which does just that by strengthening the bridge between our cultural identity and politics. I hope to continue my pursuit in politics by representing the community that makes who I am. I hope that every one of my peers, too, would come to embrace their own identities, while empowering political voices through platforms like KAGC.

Katie reflecting on her stepping out of the comfort zone with the support of her peers at the end of the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

Katie is a rising junior at the University of California, San Diego, where she majors in political science with a focus on data analytics. Katie has attended the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit, a three-day workshop for undergraduate students to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and train the ways to get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy. Since summer 2020, Katie has assisted KAGC with data analysis and visualization as a remote volunteer.

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Korean American Grassroots Conference

Korean American Grassroots Conference

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The largest nationwide network of Korean American voters that bridges the grassroots to Capitol Hill through active civic engagement 🇺🇸🇰🇷