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“Why I Serve” Series: Min “MJ” Kim

By Liz Warden

From as far back as elementary school, MJ Kim was on his own to take complete ownership of his education.

Coming from a family that immigrated from South Korea, his parents stressed hard work and education, but weren’t able to be much of an influence on his school work.

His mother dropped out of high school. It was a challenge for him to get help on his homework because his parents didn’t know beyond the multiplication table.

Many of his students are facing similar difficulties.

“There’s this one student said to me, ‘mister, I don’t feel like doing [school work] anymore,” MJ said, recalling what one of his students recently told him.

“‘I tried to do it at home, but my parents can’t help me because they never graduated from high school.”

MJ, who now is an AmeriCorps member with City Year at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in a 6th grade classroom, serves because he doesn’t want this particular student or others to feel restricted like he did growing up. He wants to be there to help them with whatever they need academically, whether that’s homework or pushing them to the next level.

When they know they have somewhere to go for academic help, they will be of top of their schoolwork. The presence of City Year members at MJ’s school, he reasoned, will also help boost the student’s confidence.

“If they need guidance or consistency, if it’s not me, its the fact that City Year is there. That’s a very powerful message,” he said.

As a first generation American and college graduate from the University of California at San Diego, MJ is able to make connections with students that others may not be able to. That’s because a majority of students at his school, Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in MJ’s home neighborhood Koreatown, come from immigrant families.

“Los Angeles is a city of immigrants. I’m sure [many] parents came from different countries don’t speak English,” he said.

“It’s just really hard growing up.”

But when he has someone to share difficulties with, the life of a first-generation American middle school student gets a little easier.

A major role model in MJ’s educational quest wasn’t a teacher, a parent, or even an adult. It was his best friend, John Kim, who also came from a South Korean immigrant family and also serves at RFK Community Schools. John showed MJ, peer-to-peer, why school was important because he was engaged in his school work. MJ then realized that middle school wasn’t just about hanging out with friends.

MJ believes that if he can have an effect on one student, that student will be a positive role model for he or she’s peers for years to come like John Kim was to him.

“If I can turn one student into caring about their life and their future…maybe that kid can influence others around him,” he said.

What MJ appreciates about City Year is that he won’t be attacking this educational goal alone like he was most of his life. Now MJ is working with a team of 18 corps members to get the job done and help middle school – especially those from immigrant families – to take ownership of their education.

“You can give a year and change the world,” he said.

“But you never have to do it alone.”

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