Class of 2021: Future Leader Is Committed to Creating Policies That Keep Children in Mind
When Joy Kim was 17, she came home from school and found her two younger sisters crying on the living room floor. Kim’s adopted sister, who was 7 at the time, had been bullied at school.
“Her best friend had told everyone in public, in the classroom, that she was an adoptee and that she was found in a trash bin,” Kim said.
Kim grew up in South Korea, where adoptive families such as hers face serious stigma. Confucianism, which stresses the importance of bloodlines, remains a strong influence in Korean culture, and people who belong to families that include adopted children often keep their identity a secret. “It was like being a minority,” Kim said.
Furious that her sister had been targeted, Kim considered calling her teacher or even the principal. But her mother had a different idea. “She asked the teacher if she could come in and be a guest speaker, so that she could educate the children about adoption,” Kim said.
The moment was pivotal for Kim. She watched her mother, who had primarily worked as a stay-at-home mom, transform into a passionate advocate for adoptive families, speaking at many different schools and even publishing two books on the subject. Tagging along with her mother to biweekly meetings for the advocacy group Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea, Kim learned more about the hardships adoptees experience, and she started thinking about the struggles of kids everywhere.
“It really ingrained me with a sense of the vulnerable position of children,” Kim said. “They don’t have a voice. They need a speaker. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can be that speaker.’”
Kim went on to attend one of Korea’s top institutions of higher education, Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and completed an ambitious double major, pairing a degree in child education and psychology with one in political science and diplomacy. Although she loved both, the two fields sometimes felt so disparate that she couldn’t imagine a way to fit them together.
“Then I thought about how I could be a bridge between them,” Kim said. It was policy that would help her become that bridge, she realized: Policies made with children in mind could give them a stronger voice and better connect them to the political world.
Soon after her graduation, in 2019, Kim enrolled at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, excited to pursue her newfound passion in the United States. Her classmates in the Master of Public Policy program impressed her from the start.
“All of the students coming into Batten – whether they’re focusing on education policy, health care policy, or affordable housing – they could talk about it for two or three hours straight!” she said.
But as is the case for so many UVA students, the pandemic presented challenges for Kim. A summer internship she had arranged in New York was cancelled last spring, and as the virus spread, she began to feel a mounting anxiety about the risks it presented to both her finances and her health. Eventually, she made the difficult decision to move back in with her family in Korea, where she has been taking her classes remotely.
Her disappointment continues to cut deep. Kim said she misses in-person meetings with professors, classes held at more reasonable hours (the time difference between Korea and the U.S. is considerable), and casual conversations with her Batten peers before and after class.
“As an international student, you study abroad not only because you want the degree, but also because you want the experience,” she said.
Still, there has been a silver lining: Last summer, Kim interned with the Korea National Assembly, where her research helped create bills designed to alleviate the pandemic’s economic impact. Her translation and distillation of a 300-page English report on universal basic income into a five-page Korean document even garnered national news coverage.
Although she wasn’t addressing children’s needs specifically, Kim feels proud that she contributed to bills made for the people who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, she said. The chance to work at the center of the action was also invaluable, she added.
“As a policy student, seeing the policymaking scene is an experience you can’t easily get, so that’s something I was really appreciating,” she said. “A lot of issues that I read about on the news were happening in front of my eyes.”
Last semester, Kim joined her passion for championing children’s needs with her growing policy prowess when she began her applied policy project, which allows Batten students to advise “real-world” clients. Hers was Re’generation Movement, a Georgia nonprofit that empowers young immigrants and refugees through tutoring, mentorship and a specialized leadership academy.
The organization has inspired Kim ever since she began volunteering there last year. “I saw that they were really shifting the paradigm,” she said. “They weren’t seeing immigrants as sheer beneficiaries, but as future leaders who are equipped with this global perspective.”
Re’generation serves the city of Clarkston, known as the most diverse square mile in America. The city’s sizable immigrant population faces major obstacles to college enrollment, and the percentage of people under 25 with college degrees sits well below the state average.
To develop recommendations for how Re’generation might address that problem, Kim conducted extensive research into the city’s background and history, designed surveys to gather data about the needs and experiences of program participants, and demonstrated the economic toll of low college enrollment on the city. According to her calculations, if everyone in Clarkston without a high school diploma earned a bachelor’s degree, the resulting increase in salary would be 10 times the city’s budget.
“That was really powerful, to see that they’re missing out on that much potential income and that society is paying that much social welfare,” she said. “They’re also losing so many potential leaders.”
Batten professor Lucy Bassett, who advised the project, praised Kim’s positivity and drive. Bassett specifically noted Kim’s decision to survey the student population, ensuring that the voices of the program participants would be heard.
“She is unwavering in her commitment to improving the quality of her work and ensuring that it is relevant and helpful in real-world policy,” Bassett said. “She’s also energetic, hard-working, and joyful – and brings those qualities out in her classmates.”
Kim made a range of recommendations to Re’generation. To better engage the program’s participants, especially given their diverse backgrounds, she suggested hiring more educators whose ethnicities and experiences reflect those of the children they teach. She also recommended developing educational materials that help students connect history to contemporary problems.
The approach is called culturally relevant pedagogy. “It’s about going one step beyond what is written in the book,” Kim said.
Kim believes that making these policy adjustments could create a major shift for kids in Clarkston. Ever since she was an adolescent herself, she has been fascinated by the way children can transform under the right circumstances. After her mother spoke about adoptive families at her school, Kim said she was amazed to learn that the kids who once bullied her sister had begun approaching her with curiosity. Just a few weeks after finding her sister in tears, in fact, Kim came home to a totally different situation.
“I remember my sister laughing and saying, ‘Hey, Joy, now my friends are lining up to ask me questions!’” Kim said.
Although she is not yet sure what the future will hold, Kim aims to work with an international aid organization such as UNICEF or the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Wherever she ends up, she plans to continue developing policies that will help young people thrive.
“I want to help children grow. They can be so resilient,” Kim said. “Often all they need is just a little bit of intervention, just a little bit of help.”