Two Paths that Diverged in Collegeville
About the writers:
Brandon, originally from Hockessin, Delaware, graduated from CSB/SJU in 2009 with a major in English and minor in philosophy. Completing a thesis examining Gandhi and Fanon's post-colonial writings, his academic interests revolved around themes of social theory and social justice. Brandon studied abroad in South Africa and also spent four years working with the SJU Campus Ministry Social Justice Office, where he led service trips, coordinated volunteer efforts, and organized advocacy and awareness events on campus.
Nik, born in Jinju, South Korea, graduated from CSB/SJU in 2009, majoring in English and minoring in Spanish. Nik's creative writing thesis focused on international adoption and adoptee cultural identity, drawing on his experiences in Korea as well as Guatemala, where he interviewed Guatemalan lawyers, government officials, and birth families. On campus, Nik reported for The Record, sat on the Cultural Affairs Board, and worked as a tutor at the CSB/SJU Writing Centers.
Spring 2009 - Before graduation
At this time I was actually not at St. John's, at least residentially, since I had decided to spend my last undergraduate semester at the University of Minnesota so I could take a Korean language class. (Meanwhile, Brandon and my other close friends were taking Luke Mancuso's "Emily Dickinson" course--I still can't believe I missed out on that.) My primary goal was to prepare for living in Korea, even though I still wasn't quite sure how that was going to happen. Here were the programs to which I had applied:
1. Language Flagship Fellowship (now offered only to U.S. undergraduates)
2. Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) grant
3. Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship
Sometime in mid-April, while working at a bookstore (or rather, a bookstore-in-renovation, just a few blocks from the U's new football stadium), my cell phone rang. "Hey Nik." (It was my brother.) "Umm...a big envelope from Fulbright Korea came in the mail today." And that settled it. I was going to Korea as a Fulbrighter.
In the midst of the rapture I was experiencing in Luke Mancuso's Emily Dickinson class and my thesis procrastination, I was rifling through countless postgraduate service opportunities. I had planned to head directly into a volunteering position throughout my college years, hoping to put my idealism about social justice into action. Originally planning to go abroad with Markynoll, the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, or the Peace Corps, a blossoming Bennie-Johnnie relationship kept my sights set (mostly) domestically.
As I applied to a myriad of AmeriCorps positions, I also sent my resume and cover letter off to the University of Minnesota Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship program for a short summer internship. Before the notoriously slow engine of AmeriCorps even started to turn, I heard back that I had been awarded this fellowship for my proposed project in Brussels, Belgium, with Pax Christi International.
Summer 2009 - Following graduation
I landed in Seoul a week before the 4th of July, and spent my first few hours lugging my 80-pound luggage halfway across the city's subway system. After dropping it off at the Fulbright building and settling into KoRoot, a hostel for adult Korean adoptees like me, I set about exploring Seoul and meeting friends for a few days, before Orientation began. (Note: I flew to Korea with my friend Emily, a fellow adopted Korean and...*cough*...graduate of St. Thomas. She and I have remained close good friends, which gives me plentiful opportunities to remind her of the unquestionable inferiority of her alma mater).
Fulbright Korea has the world's oldest and one of the most respected English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) programs in the world, so the Orientation Coordinators (OCs) definitely knew what they were doing. I took an advanced-level Korean class (perhaps a bit too advanced), made friends from all U.S. regions, and scoped out places to practice samulnori, or traditional Korean percussion.
Finally, after 6 weeks of language and cultural training came "Departure Day," where we met our assigned school's principal and vice-principal, ate lunch with them, and promptly got in their car to head to the place we'd be living for the next year.
My placement was Baeyoung Boys' High School in Jeongeup, a rural town (by Korean standards) 3 hours south of Seoul. Within a week, I had moved into my homestay family's apartment, introduced myself to my fellow Baeyoung teachers, and ran into a few of the 550 students I'd be teaching that year.
In Brussels, I was doing exactly what I had hoped to for years: working with an international peace and human rights organization. I worked with a fantastic team of staff and interns from every corner of the world. Sitting at lunch, we would oscillate from one language to the next, trying to keep every person involved in the conversation.
My main project was the philosophical and strategic development of Pax Christi's focus on women and human rights. Looking back on my early work, I'm happy to say there was always strong evidence that I was a newly-minted CSB/SJU English graduate; who else would find a way to squeeze a few Judith Butler quotes into an organizational position paper? While my postgraduate years have made me a bit more pragmatic, I still love the idea of being set loose from St. John's with a chisel, chipping away at the historically masculine paradigm of human rights.
As I tried to absorb every minute of my time abroad - the culture, Belgian chocolate and beer, and stunning architecture - I knew time was limited. Of the 50 or more AmeriCorps positions for which I had applied, I had managed to land a much smaller number of interviews. No matter who the recipient was, it was always a little difficult to explain my position abroad, request a Skype interview, and find a good time for a transatlantic conversation.
Most of the organizations starting to get back to me were ones with positions that best matched my skill sets. In more than one case, I think my success can be attributed to my ability to write a solid, attention-grabbing cover letter. While I'll spare you the details of my decision process, I ended up accepting an AmeriCorps VISTA position as the Nonprofit Outreach Coordinator at HandsOn Twin Cities.
Then, with only a week left in Europe, Pax Christi asked me to stay for the upcoming year as a communications intern.
2009-2010 - The first post-baccalaureate year
Slowly but steadily, I found my place as a teacher. My students had English levels varying from "Hi, how are you?" to full speeches on American history, so I focused primarily on connecting with them on a cultural, human level. Outside of the classroom, I found a drumming teacher--considered an "intangible cultural asset" by the Korean government--who scared the crap out of me at first, but by the end of 2009 had become a staple of my after-work routine. I was also doing plenty of traveling, visiting Seoul when I could (including Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador's residence) and setting foot in every Korean province, save one, in the far northeast.
My host family was so good to me, and we still remain in touch (my favorite memories from those first months include baking cookies, eating all kinds of kimchi, and traveling around their province). Still, I was missing my family back home, so I spent $1500 to fly home for 10 days (I would do this the following year as well).
I returned to Korea to find a blizzard, marking a winter that would finish as the longest on record since the Korean War. (One morning, my host father decided to de-ice his car by filling a bucket with near-boiling water, carrying it 10 floors down by elevator, and throwing it over his windshield. You gotta give him credit.)
On April 23, 2010, I was reunited with my Korean birth mother, whom I hadn't seen since my adoption in 1988. It was a joyful meeting, and followed by several more throughout my time in Korea.
Just a few weeks later, I was selected to be the coordinator of the 2010-11 Fulbright Korea ETA program, making me responsible for 106 new and returning ETAs. In June I said goodbye to my students and homestay family, flew to Minnesota for a week, and returned to Korean just in time to welcome the new class of ETAs, fresh of the plane and jet-lagged, just as I was a year ago.
Despite the appeal of PaxChristi's offer in Brussels, I had already given my commitments to HandsOn Twin Cities (HOTC) and my significant other. I settled into a dinky St. Paul apartment withanother AmeriCorps volunteer and St. John's Alum. While AmeriCorps experiences can be quite varied - entirely dependent on one's host organization - my experience with HOTC was fantastic.
HandsOn Twin Cities is a small nonprofit focused on expanding and enhancing volunteerism in the surrounding metro area. As the Nonprofit Outreach Coordinator, HOTC tasked me with developing nonprofit and corporate partnerships in the metro area, with a specific emphasis on their skills-based volunteerism pilot project. I'll always be appreciative of the incredible amount of responsibility and freedom I had at such an early point in my career.
This first year was one of adjustment. After orientation, I remember sitting back at my new desk and thinking, "Now what?" Sharing with a new friend and AmeriCorps colleague at HOTC, I was comforted to learn my experience was not unique. We both felt particularly ineffectual those first few weeks - perhaps months - despite praise and affirmation for our work. Set loose from the academic world of ideas and ideals, it was odd to no longer be rewarded for thoughts, but rather for acts.
Of course, AmeriCorps would only be my home for one year and I soon had to start thinking about the next. Planning to further dive into the world of human rights and social justice, I took the LSAT and prepared my application to law school. After that long an agonizing process, I found myself admitted to several top schools with very generous scholarship money. Incredibly impressed by the student body, campus environment, and opportunities to build a career in public service, I sent my enrollment deposit to University of Michigan Law School.
Just as I was settling into the idea of heading to Ann Arbor, Pax Christi got back in touch to tell me the offer for a year long position was still on the table. Not being able to pass up a year abroad in a position that was sure to further my career, I asked Michigan to defer my admission one year. My request was approved and I got ready to head back to Brussels.
2010-2011: The second post-baccalaureate year
My first month as ETA Program Coordinator was one of the most challenging in my life, but in a positive, skill-building way. As the new ETAs moved into their schools and homestay families, I was managing concerns ranging from homestay compatibility to school contract issues to health concerns. Fortunately, I had wonderful colleagues at the Fulbright office, and I found refuge in the bike trail along the Han River, with runs through the middle of Seoul and was about a 10-minute rollerblade from my apartment.
In addition to building a relationship with my birth mother, I also endeavored to make new Korean friends close to my age (which was a bit difficult when I lived in rural Jeongeup). In October I took a bus to Jeonju, a medium-sized city in west-central Korea, where I met two inline skaters who had spent time in England. We became close friends, and I spent many a weekend skating in circles with them on one of Seoul's many inline skating tracks.
During my second year I also made an effort to network with other Korean professionals, and to write about topics relating to adoptees and Korea's unwed mothers, who often face a harsh social stigma (one mother I met lost half her business after she told the New York Times that she was unmarried with a son). I also began a long process of sorting out whether I wanted to remain in Korea or go back to the U.S. According to my own interpretation, the former meant I could continue to see my birth mother and improve my Korean, while the latter would allow me to spend time with my aging grandmother and have a wider breadth of job opportunities).
In early July 2010, while wrapping up my coordinator position and teaching at Camp Fulbright (a Fulbright-run English camp for Korean students), I applied online for a job at the Walden University Online Writing Center. Just a week later, I did a phone interview, and just three weeks after landing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport the following month, I was offered a full-time position.
In the interim between the AmeriCorps year and my arrival in Brussels, I went home to spend a few weeks with my family in Delaware. My family was in the midst of dealing with my grandfather's decline and I split much of my time between visiting the hospital and my grandmother at home. I wrote and delivered my grandfather's eulogy, struggling to keep my voice from quivering through a very long five minutes. My understanding of the human condition was becoming less theoretical and more personal.
I moved back to Europe carrying the weight of this personal transformation. Again I tried to soak in the culture, scenery, and opportunity to build my understanding of international human rights work. I wrote official documents destined for the United Nations, drafted a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and coordinated events gathering people working for peace around the globe. Despite phenomenal experiences that seemed perfectly aligned with my interests, I found myself becoming increasingly restless.
In the winter, I took a trip home to visit my family and extend my visa. With an itch that had started during my grandfather's final days, I decided to pick up some volunteer shifts with an art therapy organization and a local hospital. A few individuals working in health care also allowed me to shadow them, giving me the opportunity to observe their work firsthand. I was getting a certain type of interpersonal interaction I had long missed.
Soon, I was back in Belgium at my desk. What had once seemed ideal felt increasingly abstract; I was missing the reward of face-to-face interactions and tangible gratification. After reflection, rumination, and conversation with anyone who would lend an ear, I decided to reroute toward health care. While I can't point to a specific point where I made the decision, I had gradually developed a better understanding of myself, the fulfillment I felt in direct care situations, and the type of intellectual stimulation I craved.
Though I had not determined what role fit me best - nursing, occupational therapy, and medicine were all on the table - I knew they all required a similar first step; I would have to jump into the world of science. Thinking we were ready to spend some time in the same city, my significant other and I choose La Crosse, Wisconsin, her hometown. I prepared myself for an immersion into biology, chemistry, and physics at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. This was a big leap, but there was no use in slowly wading in; this was sink or swim.
2011-2012 and beyond
Since starting at Walden, I have enjoyed one of the best jobs I could imagine for someone like me: spending my days helping students with their writing, working with English nerds like me (including Matt Smith, SJU '07), and building experience in language acquisition research, social media analysis, and grant writing.
Most recently, I have finalized plans to move to Boston in January 2013, where I'll be able to join a lively Fulbright alumni community and prepare to apply for MFA writing programs.
Luckily, things seemed to fall in place without much effort. Shortly after moving to La Crosse, I was offered a part-time position as a Patient Attendant at Gundersen Lutheran Health System. I deepened my exposure to patient care, volunteering at Gundersen Lutheran's emergency center and with their hospice program. Still passionate about social justice, I also got involved at St. Clare Health Mission, a local clinic offering medical services to the underserved. The science classes were tough and the teaching methodology much more route than in the humanities, but I was interested in the material and found myself doing very well.
After a significant amount of time shadowing various careers and considering my options, I set my sights on medical school. The exceptional physicians I met integrated awe-inspiring humanistic care, society-changing public health advocacy, and the stimulation of cutting-edge scientific diagnosis. Like so many decisions in life, was no single right answer when it came time to choose. The physician route would certainly be more arduous and longer than others, but I felt it would give me the best chances of bettering lives both individually and systemically.
The summer following my immersion into science, I was awarded a Gundersen Lutheran Student Summer Research Fellowship. While my primary goal has never been clinical research, I have jumped at every opportunity to be further exposed to good healthcare delivery. Working with a mentor oncologist, I spent my summer developing an answer to the question: "Is it beneficial for colorectal cancer patients to receive a colonoscopy one-year after they have had their cancer surgically removed, as currently suggested?" To an English major, that may sound a little dull. However to someone exposed to the physical and emotional demands of cancer treatment, it's not hard to see how such research can have profound impact on many lives.
Much excitement remains on the horizon. Accepted to several medical schools, I'll soon have to decide where to attend. Eventually, I will try to find a medical specialty that best combines my desire for humanistic care, potential for broad social impact, and my particular interests within biomedicine. And, most importantly, I must prepare for my own Bennie-Johnnie wedding.