From Philadelphia to Seoul to London, alumna Joyce Kim’s Fulbright research has continued to evolve and expand, both in its geographic reach and its human impact. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Kim wrote her thesis on the formal education system in South Korea and its influence on South Koreans’ perceptions of North Korean defectors. Her focus on the region stemmed not only from academic interest, but also from personal connection: Kim is Korean-American, and her paternal grandparents came from North Korea. Kim grew up speaking Korean at home with her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. before she was born, and she minored in Korean Studies while at Penn. After pursuing her thesis research, Kim knew that she wanted to continue her engagement with the North Korean defector community and decided to apply for a Fulbright.
From 2015-2016, Kim was based in Seoul as a Fulbright U.S. Student Program research grantee. During her grant, she researched the political resocialization process for North Korean defectors, particularly millennials, and conducted interviews with over twenty defectors. She also worked with Liberty in North Korea, an NGO with headquarters in both Long Beach, California and Seoul that facilitates rescue and support of North Korean refugees. Now a few years removed from her Fulbright experience, Kim’s work in Korea has continued to impact her academic and professional career. She is currently working toward an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and plans to remain involved with the North Korean defector community in London both through her graduate studies and as part of a storytelling project for which she received grant funding through a 2017 U.S. Alumni TIES seminar.
U.S. Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (TIES) are 3-4 day, regionally-focused seminars open to alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, including Fulbright. The seminars offer an opportunity to hear from speakers, receive training on project management, and network with other exchange alumni. This past summer, Kim took part in the U.S. Alumni TIES seminar in Philadelphia on the theme of “Building Resilient Communities: Religious and Ethnic Diversity.” Participants had the opportunity to submit project proposals to a small grant competition, through which six projects related to the theme were selected to receive funding by World Learning and the U.S. Department of State. In collaboration with fellow alum Justin Hoover, Kim developed a project called “Stories from the Hermit Kingdom: Sharing the North Korean Refugee Experience through Digital Art and Storytelling,” which was awarded a grant through the Alumni TIES program.
Kim’s Fulbright research laid the groundwork for this ambitious endeavor, which will engage local NGOs and the defector community to create a platform for the expression of refugee experiences through narrative and art. It will also serve to bridge a representation gap related to the defector socialization process, which Kim became aware of through interviews she conducted during her Fulbright. “There are several prominent ‘celebrity defectors’ or ‘defector activists’ whose narratives are largely seen to represent the defector population,” she explains. “As a result, having a platform where everyday North Korean defectors could share their narratives is the goal of this project. We plan on hosting a workshop for about 35 North Korean defectors in Seoul where they are equipped with digital storytelling skills. After completion of this workshop, their work will be featured in interactive art exhibits in Seoul, London, and Los Angeles — areas with high levels of defectors. Amidst the heated political rhetoric surrounding North Korea, many forget that it is a country home to 25 million individuals. My hope is that this project will help to humanize North Korea through the power of storytelling.”
Her Alumni TIES project is just one of many paths that Kim has taken to connect to the Fulbright Association and alumni network in meaningful ways. Most recently, she has been a lead organizer of our Northern California Chapter’s Fulbright-in-the-Classroom pilot initiative. Though currently based in the UK, Kim moved to the Bay Area after her Fulbright and worked at Year Up, a national education nonprofit based in San Francisco. Year Up supports young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 from underserved communities, many of whom Kim learned had never traveled outside their home state. When she heard about the Fulbright Association’s plan to launch the Fulbright-in-the-Classroom program, she saw it as “a powerful way for returning Fulbrighters to share their international experience and networks with students who may not have these kinds of opportunities,” and jumped at the chance to be involved in its early stages.
Reflecting on her Fulbright journey, Kim encourages young Fulbright alums to “think critically about how they can bring intercultural education to communities within the U.S. and abroad,” whether through participation in chapter and Association initiatives or sharing their own cross-cultural projects with like-minded Fulbrighters. Her experiences are a testament to the longevity of Fulbright research, and the potential for its impact on intercultural awareness to be multiplied through engagement with unique alumni opportunities. “I’ve found the Fulbright community to be incredibly generous and willing to support the success of others,” she shares.