I vaguely remember a night in Seoul, South Korea in June of 1998; I was born there seven years earlier. My parents and I were saying what seemed to be a temporary goodbye to my grandparents before our family’s flight to the United States. Little did we know we would be separated to this day, or that assimilation into US society would be so difficult. When we arrived in Los Angeles, my parents started working immediately at a 99-cent store, which was co-owned with another family. None of us knew English or Spanish, and those early years were lonely. Before long, however, my parents eagerly made friends in the Spanish-speaking community, and I adapted to my environment, forming relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. I learned that enthusiasm and kindness is rewarded by opportunities to make new friends. Soon enough, we were having dinners with co-workers and their families during the weekends, sharing Korean and Mexican food. As my family found a community in Los Angeles, I learned the importance of empathy and being able to connect with people from all types of backgrounds.
Throughout middle school and high school, these lessons proved invaluable as they helped me develop a strong group of supportive friends. During my junior year of high school, I found out about my undocumented status. In addition, my father had lost his business, and both my parents became unemployed. I was devastated. I had just started making plans for college applications, and because of my being undocumented and my family’s financial circumstances, I wasn’t sure about my educational future in America. I had two options: permanently leave everything I knew to be my home to go back to South Korea, or work harder than I ever had to continue my education in the United States. I chose the latter, and my efforts throughout high school paid off: I was accepted to University of California, San Diego. Like most undocumented students, I wasn’t eligible for financial aid, so I accepted private loans from family friends. The AB540 bill allowed me to pay in-state tuition, making it possible for me to attend UC San Diego, barely.
The most difficult thing about college was not having access to a work permit to support myself or any kind of legal identification such as a driver’s license. Because of my extremely limited budget, I know first-hand how emotionally painful it is to spend holidays and special occasions alone, hungry, and away from family. It was depressing to be unable to afford to hang out with friends, and some friends often misunderstood me when I declined their invitations. It was frustrating not being able to tell friends about being undocumented, and why I was unable to work and drive. The mental and emotional toll on an undocumented student is beyond unimaginable, and most people do not realize what we go through to get an education. I have always felt that I was alone, unable to find somebody who would be able to empathize with my situation. Thankfully, my newfound passion for medicine helped me put myself together when my status and financial crisis broke me down time after time.
During college, I explored many other career fields; however, to me, none of them felt like they had as big of an impact as medicine. From watching physicians at Riverside Community Hospital during the summer after my freshman year, to being enthralled by my upper division science courses and research, my undergraduate experiences fueled my interest in medicine. I never imagined that I would become so passionate. I took the bus and walked in the rain for an hour and a half during winter break to collect experimental data at Salk Institute, with the hopes of being able to discover the effect of a gene in drug addiction. My determination to pursue a career in medicine helped me stay motivated as I balanced my academics, extracurricular activities, and financial obligations. Through trial and error, I ironed out a detailed schedule for research, leadership responsibilities, and volunteer activities, while making sure I stayed financially afloat. Many caring people have tried to steer me away from my passion because entering medical school is almost impossible without a green card or citizenship. However, it was the only way I could escape all of my problems so I kept on doing what I loved doing.
I saved enough money to apply to medical schools in the summer of 2014. In the middle of February, a letter from University of California, Los Angeles arrived in my mailbox. My heart raced as I opened the mail. Unbelievably, I received an acceptance from David Geffen School of Medicine. It felt as though the burdens I have been carrying since high school had been lifted all at once. My parents were extremely thrilled, and I could even ‘hear’ their smiles over the phone.
After receiving my financial report a few weeks later, I contacted the financial aid office to figure out how I can afford the tuition and the living expenses. Whether I can attend medical school or not depends on my personal fundraising or finding a co-signer for a bank loan; as an undocumented student, I am unable to receive any federal loans or apply for many scholarships. This is just one of many obstacles I have faced in my life, and I will do my best in the following months to find ways to afford my tuition and my living expenses.
Ever since my family arrived in this country, I have witnessed the impact of having strong ties to a community, and hard, relentless work. One of the most valuable things I have learned from my family and from my college experiences is that boundaries like citizenship and economic circumstances must not have any impact on our willingness to help others. I know that my life’s work will be to channel my empathy to serve disadvantaged communities through healthcare in the future.
About Seung Jin Lee
Seung Jin Lee (James) has recently been accepted to the Class of 2019, David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles. He graduated in 2013 with a B.S. in Physiology and Neuroscience from University of California, San Diego and has worked as a research associate/lab manager in his gap years. During medical school, he would like to further explore psychiatry, neurology, or neurosurgery while continuing research in neuroscience. During his free time, he likes to record music, go to the gym, and read.