One minute she was taking the Oath of Allegiance to become a citizen of the United States and the next, she was awarded a prestigious Pickering fellowship from the State Department. That’s how it is with Ji-Hyeun Kwon-Min. She is always looking toward the future and the next great opportunity, even when she has many obstacles to overcome to get there.
Ji moved to the U.S. from Korea in the sixth grade, knowing little English. She reflects, “My family came to the United States in 2000 because of my dad's work and we had planned to return to Korea after a year. After immersing myself into the culture and education system for a year, however, I realized that I enjoyed studying in the United States and told my parents that I wanted to stay here. Staying in the United States meant that I had to do everything on my own as my parents did not speak English fluently and were not familiar with the steps one needed to take to get into college or get a job in the United States. My parents respected my decision and everyone except my dad stayed in the United States. As the first child and the first one to learn English, I had lots of family responsibilities, such as attending parent-teacher conferences with my mom, taking care of my younger siblings while my mom was working, calling credit card companies to correct incorrect charges, etc. Even now, my parents rely on me more than my younger siblings. Even though I have been overwhelmed at times, my decision to stay has made me more responsible, independent, and stronger as I am more of a partner to my mom than a daughter.”
In Korea, Ji was immersed in a homogenous and patriarchal society. Since coming to the U.S., she has challenged herself to examine the “walls” within race, class, culture and gender and to expand her boundaries. She maintains respect for her family’s traditions without limiting her perspective. Ji represents an interesting and complex combination of progressive values and traditional Korean culture. She has demonstrated that she can negotiate the territory of two worlds and can adapt to change.
Her frustration learning the idiosyncrasies of the English language inspired her to tutor English as a Second Language throughout high school and college. She understands the feelings of embarrassment and impatience students feel. Her success in this role has been grounded in the personal relationships she forms with her students, connecting to their experiences and inspiring confidence.
Ji graduated from Duke in 2011 as a Women’s Studies and Public Policy double major. She is grateful for the mentorship she received from Professors Alma Blount and Kathy Rudy. “Professor Blount helped me define the approach I want to take when I promote U.S. foreign policy as a Foreign Service Officer. As my Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) and thesis advisor, she taught me about the importance of community integration when building relationships with foreign communities. If I had not taken her advice, I would not have been able to complete my SOL project and thesis in Nicaragua. Dr. Rudy introduced me to a concept called intersectionality and made me aware of what feminism means in relation to my identity. According to intersectionality, as a Korean immigrant woman, my experience with gender relations is going to be different from other people with different identities. Keeping this in mind, I will continue to acknowledge diversity in feminism and in other cultures' gender relations.”
She advises Duke first-year women to take time to pursue their hobbies. “One of my biggest regrets in life is not pursuing my passion for classical music at Duke. I kept making excuses and rarely played the piano. To correct my mistake, I have been taking piano lessons again from my high school piano teacher for six months. I get stressed out very easily, but I release my stress by playing the piano. I wish I had minored in music or at least had taken lessons at Duke because it could have lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Ji has worked as a Research Assistant at Mathematica Policy Research in DC for the last two years. She will be teaching English next year in Madrid with the Fulbright Program and will return to attend graduate school in public policy.