Chung Kim: Inclusivity, Kindness, Celebrating Heritage and Culture

May 28, 2021

From a young age, Chung Kim says she learned how to adapt to life in different areas of the world and make friends with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Now, at Georgia Tech, Kim brings that generous compassion for others in sharing advice and support, encouraging conversations and listening, and helping the graduate student community thrive.

As academic program coordinator for the School of Biological Sciences, Kim helps master’s and Ph.D. students complete graduate school studies and research — from applications and research to dissertations and graduation day.

“I have such respect for students and grad students,” she says. “Some of these students have families, they're taking care of children — so they have a lot on their plate, aside from the enormous amount of research that they're doing. And sometimes they encounter unexpected problems throughout the course of their journey. So I try to help out as much as I can, trying to find resources for them.”

Kim began her tenure at Tech four years ago, after several of her colleagues at Savannah College of Art and Design transferred to work at the Institute. “Every one of them was so happy with what they were doing, and just the whole vibe at Georgia Tech. I just could not resist.”

Turns out those colleagues were on to something. “I would say it is definitely the people, you know — and people meaning the staff, the faculty, the students,” she says. “Every encounter at Georgia Tech has been very positive. To start off with, I share an office with Lisa Redding. She's our other graduate program coordinator. From day one, she has just been this super helpful mentor — I consider her as my mentor, so knowledgeable,” Kim shares.

“And I, what I really love is that, in everything that we do, no matter what our role here at Georgia Tech, I always get the feeling that students come first. And that's something that has really impressed me and inspires me,” she adds. “The students really should come first — that's who you're serving. And that's why we're here. So I think that really stands out to me, and that's what makes me proud to be a part of Georgia Tech.”

Spirit of Georgia Tech

Kim is an active player in building that thriving community and culture. This spring, she was selected for the Spirit of Georgia Tech award, an annual honor for Georgia Tech staff members who “support and uphold the mission and vision of the Institute — and possess character and professionalism that make working at Georgia Tech better.” She was nominated for the award by Redding.

“I was so shocked and it was a really happy surprise,” remembers Kim about hearing the good news. “Lisa forwarded me that her nomination was selected, and she shared the nomination packet with me, which was so touching. I don't know when she found time — because she was super busy. It was very emotional reading everything that the professors and our students had shared. And it definitely was very motivating. It really made me appreciate what I do and makes me want to kind of strive to be better at serving our students and faculty.”

Speaking up for representation and racial justice

Kim also serves as an inaugural member of the newly formed College of Sciences Staff Advisory Council, which acts as a liaison between College staff and leadership and administration, cultivating the opportunity for significant contribution of staff expertise, input, and ideas. The Council is chaired by Kim’s colleague Kathy Sims, who serves as the liaison between the Office of Development and the College of Sciences Dean’s Office.

Over the past year, Sims and the Council have collaborated with Susan Lozier, dean of the College of Sciences and Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair, to invite guest speakers to a twice-a-month virtual coffee hour for all staff: Dean’s Drop-In.

Earlier this year, Kim accepted an invitation to share her own experiences about growing up in Korea and the U.S., talk about dismantling racial prejudice toward people of Asian descent, and share ways to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the wake of the March 16 Atlanta-area mass shootings that targeted Asian women.

“There were so many things that I wanted to share, but also didn’t really know how to share,” says Kim. “These things aren’t really discussed often, or not often enough, in a professional setting. It’s something that I talk about a lot with friends and family — but I don’t think there was an opportunity for me to discuss these things at work. So, you know, I really welcomed this.”

During the discussion, Kim shared how she felt after an unexpected experience with a classmate and friend in childhood — a moment that struck her as mean-spirited then, which she now realizes was a first brush with casual racial prejudice. Kim also provided a unique perspective on life in the “diplomatic bubble, where diversity was celebrated and respected” — growing up, her father worked for the Korean government, so her family moved frequently. She spent her high school years in Virginia before returning to South Korea for college at Ewha Womans University (이화여자대학교).

“With my parents, we really didn't talk about race a lot because we moved around so much,” Kim explains. Her parents generally focused on her adjustment to a new school and environment. “But for our kids who are growing up — my older daughter was born in Korea, but our younger son was born here — for them to be growing up as citizens, they're going to have a whole different experience. And I want to make sure that they are educated, and that their eyes are open. I don't want to taint their innocence. But at the same time, I want them to be aware that these things are happening. And I also want them to know how to deal with these situations and not be complacent, whether it be directed towards them, or towards others. I want them to have their own voice and stand up.”

Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in McLean, Virginia, Kim also remembers acclimating with suburban American middle and high school communities. “If they had a spirit week, if it was 80s week or something like that, I tried to do my hair the same way that the other girls were doing, and in the way that they told me would work. But it did not work because I have different hair,” she laughs.

Kim adds that in high school, she realized she had two distinct sets of friends: “I had a Korean group of friends. And then I had my non-Korean group of friends.” At times, she says she felt like she had to be “more Korean” around those Korean friends — careful with her accent and pronunciation, so that she wouldn’t sound American. “And I just thought that was very odd and confusing. But as a teenager, you don't want to stand out in any group, you want to fit in — so that's just how it was! And at the time, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess you know, this is just kind of being diplomatic. I'll just show this side of myself with this group.’ But funny enough, like, I didn't really feel that way with the other crew — I felt like I was more of myself,” she says.

“Speaking with people who kind of had a similar childhood like myself, we always talk about how we don’t feel like we fit into any particular group, so I think we gravitate towards one another,” she shares.

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage and culture

Kim adds, “As I grow older, the line has blurred now a little bit and I’m more comfortable just being myself. There are certain things that, when I do go back to Korea, I know that it’s more culturally expected that I behave certain ways, especially in front of our elders. But as I grew older I was able to find people that were more willing to accept me for just myself.”         

She encourages her kids to do the same — to love the American and Korean parts of themselves. In her household, Kim makes sure to prioritize teaching her children about their Korean culture through cooking traditional cuisine, celebrating Korean holidays, and encouraging conversation about the elements of Korean culture.

In February, Kim’s family celebrated the Lunar New Year with two other families in their Covid-19 bubble.

“There are several kinds of traditions we celebrate,” she says. “We all don our Korean traditional attire, which is called hanbok, and bow to our elders, and then we all get an allowance. And then the most meaningful thing I think is that the adults, together with the kids, give advice or encouragement for the upcoming new year. And then we top it off with eating this kind of rice cake soup that every Korean will have on New Year’s Day, which basically signifies that you’re one year older, because in Korea, you don’t go by your birthday. Everyone goes by the calendar year and ages together.”

At the same time she’s celebrating Korean culture, Kim focuses on having honest conversations with her kids about the realities of being a person of Asian descent in America.

In response to the March 2021 shootings in Atlanta, Kim sat down with her daughter to discuss what happened and talk about how she was feeling.

“I asked her how she felt, and she said that she was scared, which was very heartbreaking. You don’t ever want to feel like your child feels like they could be targeted because of their race.”

During that time of reflection, Kim adds that she acquired a deeper understanding of the pain of racism felt by the Black community in America for many generations.

“While friends and colleagues were reaching out to me, it also dawned on me that this was something that was, very sadly, too familiar to my Black friends and colleagues, and the Black community,” she says. “They have been having this conversation for generations. You know, I'm the first in my family to be talking about this to my child. Of course, there are other Asian families that have been having this discussion for generations. But to me, it was a very sad realization of how racism is still very alive and real.”

One of the ways that Kim is working to learn more about the impact of racism is through reading and reflection.

“What really kind of attracted me were all of these personal essays and stories about Asian Americans, especially women, who are becoming more comfortable in their own skin, and calling out behavior, like microaggressions.”

She notes that hearing examples of others actively calling out microaggressions helps her feel more confident addressing it in her own life. When she was recently grocery shopping, an employee was making conversation with Kim and her children, and began guessing their nationality.

“Normally, I might have not said anything, because I know he was just trying to be friendly,” she says. “But I could tell that my daughter was actually feeling a little bit uncomfortable. And I felt that I have to say something — she's here watching, this could be a teaching moment for her. So I told the gentleman that it's not polite to guess one's nationality, based on the way that they look. And, of course, he was very apologetic, and he was apologizing multiple times! And I just said, well, now you know. And I think those are little steps that I'm taking, and I'm hopeful that that will teach my kids how to handle those types of similar situations.”

As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close (Tech joins many universities in celebrating AAPI Heritage Month throughout April and its formally recognized month of May, so that students and our community can celebrate and gather before the spring semester ends), Kim encourages others to continue to practice kindness and inclusiveness.

“Take a moment to try to learn, or maybe have more openness in your heart, and try to be more inclusive. You know — we're all in this together. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are mere beings. Try to envision the world that you want your kids to be in, and those small acts of kindness that you can do.”