Kim’s background has helped shape first year
By Madeline Sims, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series of articles reflecting on College President Jim Yong Kim’s first year in office.
When College President Jim Yong Kim was chosen as a the first Asian-American to direct an Ivy League institution, his appointment was lauded in the Korean press and hailed by many as a landmark achievement. A year after his appointment, Kim has continually shown an ability to understand the complexity of cross-cultural interaction, several students and administrators said.
Kim, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, possesses a unique perspective on identity and diversity, Spears said.
“He has the ability to be exactly who he is in the world and to understand the complexity of human interaction,” she said.
Jennifer Paik ’12, a member of the Korean Students Association, said Kim has shown the Korean and Korean-American communities nationwide the importance of acting outside the “four walls of a classroom.”
“I think Kim probably inspires Korean students, and all students, to go beyond academics,” Paik said. “He’s someone who went through some of the best schools in America and then took that education and made a difference in the world.”
The application of academic skills to practical situations is particularly important for Korean and Korean-American students, many of whom come from communities that emphasize measurable achievement rather than efforts to create global change, Paik said.
“Korea is a country that is instilled with a great sense of tradition,” she said. “Although it has become very modernized in terms of technology, people still hold the same beliefs, and they emphasize professionalism and academics more so than arts and other fields that might not be viewed as useful.”
Both Asian and Asian-American news media closely followed Kim’s selection, inauguration and first year of work at the College, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Newspapers such as The Chosun Ilbo — one of South Korea’s major daily newspapers — The Korea Times, Asia News Online Today, JoonAng Daily and Korean-American Science and Technology News have run numerous articles and opinion columns detailing Kim’s recent work at the College.
Before Kim’s appointment, few members of the Korean community outside of Dartmouth were aware that Dartmouth is a member of the Ivy League, Paik said.
“After his inauguration, though, Korean awareness and appreciation of the College definitely increased a lot,” she said.
Paik, who was studying at Yonsei University in Seoul on an exchange program when Kim was inaugurated, recalled a lot of “media buzz” in Korea around the time of Kim’s inauguration.
“He was on the news a lot, and I remember they even did a 60-minute special on his life,” she said. “Korea in general is a very nationalistic country, and having such an accomplished individual become the first Asian-American president of an Ivy League school is something that every single Korean person can take pride in.”
The emphasis many Koreans place on higher education and prestigious universities also contributed to the publicity surrounding Kim’s appointment, Paik added.
“Education-wise, Korea is very focused on achievement in the sense of making a name for yourself through academics,” she said.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak congratulated Kim on his inauguration in a letter to Kim and the rest of the Dartmouth community dated Sept. 17, 2009.
Kim attended the annual Korean Culture Night hosted by the Korean Student Association on April 24 with his family, Paik said.
“We weren’t sure if he would be able to make it, but the fact that he was in the audience made everyone much more excited,” Paik said. “Kim definitely contributed to the energy of both the performers and the audience members.”
Kim has also provided support and encouragement to various Asian student groups on campus, including the Korean Student Association and the Dartmouth Asian Organization, partly by attending their events, according to Paik.
Paik, who is an anthropology major, said that Kim has inspired her to follow her passion.
“My parents have always asked me, ‘What are you going to do with an anthropology major?’ But now I can say, ‘Look at President Kim and all he has done,’” she said.
Dartmouth’s Office of Public Affairs expanded its efforts to attract national attention for Kim’s inauguration compared to previous presidents’ arrivals on campus. While some students speculated that the pomp and circumstance was partially due to the fact that Kim is the first Asian-American to lead an Ivy League institution, Spears said the inauguration focused on Kim’s experience and leadership qualities.
“All you have to do is engage with him for five seconds to realize that the substance of his character is based on what he accomplished in the world and not just his race or cultural identity,” Spears said.
Kristina Gilbert ’10 said that in the year since Kim’s appointment, the focus has shifted away from Kim’s status as a minority and the first Asian-American president of the Ivy League and towards his past and current work.
“Once he began to lead, the attention shifted more to what he is capable of doing for the College,” she said. “People began to talk more about his accomplishments and achievements, independently of his race.”
Nevertheless, several students said that they can see the influence of Kim’s experience in the choices he makes as president.
Devin Fay ’13 said Kim has urged students to adopt a more global outlook in their educational experiences.
“I also think Kim has tried to orient students more toward ‘serving the world’ rather than differentiating ourselves from the larger society,” he said. “I think this is a point of view that has been shaped by Kim’s upbringing and past experiences in global work.”
If Kim has changed the face of the Ivy League, it has been by inspiring students to assume responsibility and take an active role in social progress, Spears said.
“I think he’s calling students at Dartmouth to truly be the leaders that they can be,” she said.
Kim’s success — both prior to coming to the College and in his first year as College president — has earned the respect of the larger Dartmouth community, according to Amrita Sankar ’12, co-chair of Student Assembly’s Diversity and Community Affairs Committee. Kim serves as an example for minority students that “they too can aspire to positions of leadership,” she said.
After his inauguration, Kim said he was impressed by the College’s commitment to diversity — as well as the increasing numbers of students of color and international students enrolling in the College — but expressed concern that the number of enrolled black students was not increasing, The Dartmouth previously reported.
The Admissions Office has continued to recruit students from diverse backgrounds during Kim’s administration, Spears said.
But “numbers growth” is not all that matters, Spears added. Rather, Kim is determined to ensure that students from a variety of backgrounds have access to the resources they need to flourish at the College, according to Spears.
“I do think where we need to work on is ensuring that every student is successful, and that graduation rates and average GPAs and all of the talent students come with is supported across all of those groups,” she said. “If there are any environmental or institutional barriers to that success, Kim is committed to making those barriers go away.”
Kim’s “exceptional perspective” on diversity is based on his upbringing and cultural identity, according to Sankar.
“I believe he can uniquely empathize with minority and ethnic factions on campus, sympathize with their ambitions to promote cultural awareness and strive for collaboration between cultural affinity groups on campus,” she said.
She added that upon arriving at the College, Kim met with the president of each cultural affinity organization to discuss campus diversity and how to promote a sense of community.
Kim’s background became a source of controversy less than a week after his selection was announced when one student sent a “satiric” Generic Good Morning Message warning of the “Asianification” of the College and referring to Kim as a “Chinaman.”
Students, student groups and administrators criticized the GGMM — a daily, tongue-in-cheek news bulletin edited by six Dartmouth upperclassmen — saying the e-mail was offensive and reflected poorly on the College.
Kim responded with compassion and “tremendous understanding” toward the incident, Spears said.
“The way [Kim] approached that issue was by saying that he did not want the student who wrote the piece to have his life affected by making one mistake,” Spears said.
Instead, Kim turned the situation into a learning experience for the e-mail’s writer, providing an opportunity for the student to realize what he did not understand about “the complexity of race, identity and culture,” Spears said.
“The fact that [Kim] was able in that moment to suspend anger and actually focus on the student’s growth shows you what his character is as a president,” Spears said.
The author of the e-mail later apologized for “inappropriate” and “insensitive” comments in an e-mail to the GGMM listserv and said he had not intended to offend anyone. Other members of the GGMM staff also apologized for their lack of oversight, The Dartmouth previously reported.