Seoyeon Kim: Transcending Fragmentation via Storytelling & Activism
I met Seoyeon Kim ’21 through Zoom in “Non-Fiction I” last semester. In addition to being impressed and inspired by her beautiful writing and brilliant insights, I also felt an indescribable closeness to her. Despite seeing her only through the rectangle on my computer screen, she became full and vibrant in my mind. In class, Kim listens and responds with deliberation and thoughtfulness. She writes with delicate strokes and brutal honesty. It was hard not to see her as someone I could trust, confide in and learn from both inside and outside the classroom.
I met Kim for the first time in person when interviewing her for this piece. She was in a sage-colored mini-dress with a white knitted cardigan loosely tied around her shoulders. It felt like we had already known each other for a long time. It’s always gratifying when Zoom faces are finally brought to life right in front of you. But with Kim, it was more than that. In an hour-long conversation amid the New England summer breeze, I was able to get a deeper glimpse into the tremendous depth of her character, her strength and her grace. And on top of that, I gained a new friend.
Finding Her Voice at Amherst
When the college asked Kim to put down hometowns for her graduation slide, she didn’t know what to put. She was born in Korea, moved to Maine when she was seven years old and lived there up until she relocated to Singapore to attend an international high school. Now her parents live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she will be off to New York City after graduation.
When living in her predominantly white neighborhood in Maine, Kim was one of two Asian students in her entire school. “My whole elementary school, middle school years were spent trying to pretend like I was also white,” she said. Things didn’t change after she moved to Singapore because she still hadn’t had the opportunities to discuss and reflect on identity-related topics.
In the personal essay she wrote in her application to Amherst, Kim reflected on the feeling of not having a home. But while being asked “Where are you from?” still throws her off today, her 4 years at Amherst have changed the way she approaches the question. “I moved on from thinking of [the question] in binary terms,” Kim said, her face glowing. “I think the classes that I’m taking really helped me explore that question. I’m taking a class right now called ‘Narratives of Migration and Transformation.’ Multiple people in that class have the same problem [as I do]. And I feel like in that togetherness, I’ve been able to find something that makes me feel stabilized even when I’m moving all over the place everywhere.”
Learning about her history allowed Kim to realize that her experiences were not only valid but also valued. The Asian American studies classes she has taken at Amherst have ignited and deepened her reflection on her identity. “Those courses gave me the language to actually say things that I’ve been wanting to say all those years, and think about things that I wanted to think about,” Kim said.
Translating Self-Discovery into Activism
Through learning about and exploring her identity as an Asian American woman, Kim recognized the value in herself and her voice. Beyond self-discovery, she has continued to translate her newly-found strength into relentless activism.
As a former senior chair of the Asian Students Association (ASA) and member of the Asian Pacific American Action Committee (APAAC), Kim has been a leader, a mentor and a tireless advocate for increased attention to and resources for Asian American Studies at the college. Her commitment to fighting on behalf of her community and her own identity demonstrates her courage in finding her own voice, as well as her passion for uplifting others’ narratives.
Kim recalled that, as a freshman, she felt out of place in the Asian American community at Amherst because not having a chance to explore her identity before college made her hesitant to join in spaces such as ASA. Equipped with the language she gained from the Asian American studies courses she began to take at Amherst, however, Kim gathered enough confidence to go to ASA meetings and eventually take on the position of vice chair in her junior year, before becoming senior chair the following semester.
“She definitely knows how to leverage her voice and advocate for herself and advocate for others,” said Mica Nimkarn ’24, the current vice chair and upcoming senior chair of ASA, “She’s taught me how to be better at voicing my own opinions.”
Leading ASA amidst a pandemic and escalating anti-Asian racism was not easy. Organizing events and maintaining effective communication were especially challenging, but Kim remained proactive in her support of other community members. “She is a very warm presence,” said Sung Kwak ’22, current senior chair of ASA and Kim’s vice chair. “She makes light of not-so-great situations with her great sense of humor.”
As an inspiring leader and mentor, Kim also takes care of her community. “She was one of the first people to reach out to me and other people who are in ASA [after the Atlanta spa shootings], just letting us know that it’s okay to take time for ourselves as leaders,” said Nimkarn. “She supported a lot of us through that.” Kim’s dedication to uplifting Asian American voices is undeniable as her humility and thoughtfulness shine through.
Breaking Through Academically
As a sociology and English double major, Kim has developed her own narrative as an Asian American woman and sought to challenge her perspectives of the self and the society through her academic career. The course “Introduction to Sociology” opened her eyes to the ways of thinking that relate personal issues to public issues. It was also illuminating for her to learn about how rigged the elite education system is in the U.S., which propelled her to major in sociology.
In her sophomore year, she took “Narratives of Suffering,” a course that transformed her perspective of what writing could be like and ignited her desire to major in English. It allowed her to abandon her preconceived notion that there was a certain shape that you had to fit your writing into in order for it to be considered as academic writing and let her pen go free. “I felt so liberated writing in that way, and I just couldn’t forget that feeling,” she said. Kim continued to seek out courses that challenged aspects of her identity and shaped her ways of creative expression. For example, in “Decolonial Love,” she reflected on and wrote about the experiences of marginalization and racialization and their connection to imperialism and colonialism.
The combination of sociology and English allowed Kim to tell stories through both personal and social lenses. “I always think about the context as a sociologist, but it’s not distancing like how academic writing is sometimes,” she said, “Literature lets me get close to the experiences without forgetting about the social context.”
For her thesis, Kim experimented with the relationship between critical and creative forms. Her project explores how dislocation affects the sense of self, challenging and complicating the Western frameworks of the self through the examination of Asian American literature. “I always thought my feelings of disembodiment and dissociation were a bad thing. And then, through taking those English seminars, I got closer and closer to asking the question: what if dissociation could be thought of as a strange gift?”
Turning the feeling of fragmentation and emptiness into a space for possibilities and potential, Kim’s hybrid critical-creative thesis also includes her own creative work on the struggle to feel real, dissociation and reaching toward feeling pulled together. “Seoyeon has truly embraced the hybridity of ‘creative/critical’ format,” said Professor of English Amelia Worsley, Kim’s thesis advisor. “She arranges her argument so that paragraphs slowly transition into a series of fragments that mimic the fragmentary, cinematic method that [Theresa Hak Yung Cha, the writer whom she analyzed,] engages in.”
Until Kim received her honors recommendation for her thesis, she did not know what Latin honors were. She FaceTimed her mother and her mother’s first words to her were: “What’s summa cum laude?” She spent an hour on the call explaining what it was. The generational gap between immigrant parents and their daughter did not deter their connections. “I think there’s something beautiful in the way that we’ve managed to communicate despite all those gaps,” said Kim.
Kim has critically examined what it means to be a 1.5 generation immigrant through her experience at Amherst. She got to understand more of her own identity while serving a larger community through both leadership and storytelling. When asked what she would do differently if she could start her college career over, Kim said she would center herself in her decision-making more. “Self-questioning just never became a part of my life until I actually thought enough of myself to ask myself those questions,” she said.
Amherst has been integral to Kim’s self-discovery both personally and socially. Both inside and outside the classroom, “she radiates independent energy,” said her friend Haley David ’21. “Committed,” “powerful” and “uncompromising” are three words that have repeatedly come up when friends, colleagues and professors were asked to describe Kim. As an Asian American woman who has found her voice and continues to deepen her commitment for community advocacy, Kim leaves Amherst with an impact that will reverberate even after her departure.
After graduation, Kim will relocate to New York City where she will be working as a legal assistant at Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, an employment litigation law firm. While law school could be the logical next step for her, she is still open to different directions for her academic and career path, such as going to graduate school for English. Although Kim’s future may be uncertain, she will certainly continue to lead, inspire and create far beyond her college years.