John Park ’12 remembers the precise moment when he printed all 40 pages, stapled them, and submitted his honors thesis after months of intense research and advocacy work on the state of North Korean refugees.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I loved every moment of it.”
Park is originally from Winchester and Bedford, Massachusetts, and studied microbiology as a CHC student. He conducted lab research, served as volunteer chair of the Pre-Medical Society, worked as a personal care assistant, and volunteered at Boston Children’s Hospital during the summers.
Despite spending much of his undergraduate career studying microbiology and preparing for medical school, his service and volunteer experiences at UMass led him to pursue a dual thesis—a research paper and an advocacy project—on North Korean human rights.
“I wanted my thesis and project to be very meaningful, even if it broke out of the mold of my major,” Park said.
As a sophomore, he participated in the Civic Engagement and Service Learning (CESL) program at UMass, which sent him to volunteer at Amherst’s Fort River Elementary School. He tutored children, played with them on the playground, and helped plan the annual Cambodian Cultural Club’s New Year’s Festival.
“I got really attached to the kids and volunteered through graduation. I miss those beans!” he said affectionately.
Through CESL he also became aware of “systems of privilege that organize society." He describes the course as a stepping stone to extending hope to underserved populations. As a junior, he attended a film screening hosted by the organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which rescues North Korean refugees and helps them resettle in South Korea and the United States. The film highlighted the struggle of the North Korean people and the thousands of refugees who live in hiding in China. Park said the film explained how refugees face “unimaginable suffering” and the constant threat of repatriation.
“I was troubled and shaken at the stories of refugees, especially since my grandfather was from North Korea,” Park said, adding that the stories “changed his life,” and drove him to study the issue and advocate for refugees for his honors thesis.
In search of a sponsor for his thesis, he began reaching out to faculty in the political science, legal studies, and Asian studies fields whose research interests matched his own. Persistence is key, according to Park.
“When professors see you’re very driven, they want to help you out,” he said.
After securing faculty sponsors, Park began the work for his project and research paper. He started a collegiate chapter of LiNK at UMass and spent hours every week designing posters and pamphlets, talking with students in the Campus Center, hosting film screenings, and speaking at campus events about the North Korean refugee crisis. He says he enjoyed the active, creative aspect of completing a thesis project. In his research paper, Park explored the power of the refugees’ narratives and analyzed how storytelling can enact change.
After completing his dual thesis and graduating from UMass, Park worked as an educator and fundraiser with LiNK in California before applying to medical schools. He is currently a medical student at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Pennsylvania, and hopes to become a pediatrician or family physician and provide healthcare for refugees.
Park believes that passion is the key to success in academics and beyond.
His advice for current CHC students? “Follow your passion and give it all you’ve got.”