Imagine heading to the other side of the world to study – and finding out that your grasp of the language isn’t as firm as you may have believed. You struggle to communicate and make friends in a place where everyone seems firmly fixed into their own social group, and unwilling to meet you halfway when you reach out.
In essence, that was high school for Minhyung Park.
As a teenager, she left her South Korean homeland to attend high school in America – first in Nebraska, and then in Michigan. In Korea, one of her favorite subjects in school was English, and becoming an exchange student seemed enticing – even logical. But written facility with language doesn’t equate to the skills you need in every day conversation, much less at the age of 15. Add a totally new culture into the mix, and high school was as great a trial as they come – especially for someone who loves to interact with other people.
“I had lunch in the bathroom because no one would include me. My English was pretty bad. They didn’t understand me, but they also didn’t try to understand,” Min remembered. “I took a lot of art classes. I didn’t have to talk in art class, so I didn’t get lonely there. I cried every night.”
After she graduated high school, she returned home for a gap year, uncertain of the path she wanted to follow. She asked herself some hard questions: Where does she find meaning? What career could she truly feel passionate about?
That period of self-reflection was difficult on many levels. Her parents questioned her path, pointing out that many of her peers were already in college or even starting on their careers.
But she found her answer: biology, with the ultimate goal of becoming a dentist. And she also found a path to reach her goals: through SUNY Broome, which laid the academic foundation she needed to transfer into Ivy-League Cornell University for her bachelor’s degree, and then on to dental school.
“Dentistry is really amazing. It’s like science and beauty at the same time,” she said.
Minhyung Park learned about SUNY Broome from her best friend back in South Korea, who attended Binghamton University. She recommended SUNY Broome as a great place to start, setting her up to transfer to BU or other schools. And while Min initially dreamed of going to California – “I have sort of a romance about America,” she quipped – she decided to head to an environment where she at least knew a few people.
Her experience at SUNY Broome has been rewarding, and far less lonely than high school. She found her biology professors very encouraging; they were the ones, in fact, who encouraged her to aim high and apply for Cornell.
“I love it here. I wish this was a four-year college,” she said. “The people are really supportive and encouraging. I would never have expected to apply to Cornell. My professor said I could do it.”
During her time at SUNY Broome, she helped Dr. Tracy Curtis with Lyme disease research and became involved with Student Assembly as the group’s vice president of academic affairs.
She also became a Resident Assistant in the Student Village, where she tries to be an ambassador for international students. She knows what it’s like to struggle because you come from a different place with a different language and customs, and also appreciates the opportunity to get outside of her comfort zone.
She also draws on her personal experiences while tutoring her fellow Hornets in biology.
“I am very confident telling other students, ‘I’ve been through the struggle,’” she said. “I just want to help others.”
She has become more familiar with American culture and speaks English well now, although she still remarks on the differences between here and home. Much of the United States truly seems designed for the automobile, while public transit is much more prevalent in South Korea, where the buses run every few minutes and Park frequently took the subway. The food is different, of course.
She hasn’t been home for 2½ years while completing her Associate’s degree, but she has been too focused on her academic work and campus life to feel homesick. Her career goal, so much clearer now, motivates her, as well as her peers.
“I keep myself busy and my friends from SUNY Broome are really intelligent and work so hard. I want to be like them. They’re my role models,” she said. “I recommend people come here. This is really changing my life.”