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Giva Scholarship & Community Ambassador Award Winner Essay Series: Joseph Lee - Finding My Identity

Giva is proud to showcase the essays of its Student Scholarship and Worldwide Community Ambassador Award winners. Below is an essay from Joseph Lee, Rush Medical College. Giva's hope is to inspire others through these essays. We hope that sharing these essays will help others realize the joys and benefits of service.

Joseph Lee - Finding my Identity

Every day we make a decision about living for the betterment of ourselves or the betterment of others. It is not a simple decision, beginning with the discovery of our own identities. This path of self-discovery has led me to conclude that being Korean American is an unfathomable blessing, requiring that I grant that pursuit of happiness to others. Ultimately, this passion drives me into a career of service, which extends far beyond the reach of the hospital floors, and is a message that I hope to spread across the globe.

The moment I first realized I was different was in the gang-infested streets of Chicago, IL. Born to two Korean immigrant parents, my family was unable to find safer residence. And as a young boy, area bullies would harass me because I looked different. At school, students slanted their eyes and said "ching-chong," while teachers asked "where are you 'really' from." Consequently, I matriculated into high school feeling like a perpetual foreigner. Slowly, I started to wish I was not Korean, refused to speak the language, and even tried make my eyes bigger by stretching them. Two trips to my motherland, however, would change my life forever, and lead me toward a path of identity creation as author Thomas Szasz stated "...the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates."

Prior to my freshman year of college, I visited South Korea for the first time. From the moment my feet touched the grounds of Incheon Airport, I experienced a completely novel sensation: belongingness. Over the next month, I began to realize the privilege of being Korean American, embracing both my Korean heritage and my American upbringing. With such newfound devotion, I enrolled in Korean language immersion classes, earned an Asian American studies minor; and wrote a Senior Honor's Thesis on bicultural Asian Americans while at Northwestern University.

Nevertheless, the best was still to come through a conference titled Young Generation Forum in Daegu, Korea hosted by the Korean American Scientists and Engineers Association. It was through learning of the Hyundai and POSCO Corporations that I grasped the extent to which our Korean forefathers sacrificed, and it was then that I realized that I, too, must serve the Korean community. And I have and continue to do so through my work with the Korean American Community Services, Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Chicago, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Asian Health Coalition. Further, I educate young people about the journey of finding ones Asian American identity through avenues such as the Young Generation Technical Leadership Conference (YGTLC) in San Francisco, FOB: Reflections of an Asian American Life Beyond Northwestern in Evanston, and Illinois Lieutenant Governor Candidate, Steven Kim's Fundraising Gala in Chicago.

With that said, we must not limit our impact on society to the Korean Community alone, but look beyond our own people and the borders of our nation as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, "Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.... You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace..." I have tried to instill such truths of service in my life, first as a teacher to poor, Black 7th and 8th grade students at Parkside Community Academy in the south side of Chicago, Illinois. And while teaching has been the most difficult endeavor I have embarked on in my life thus far, it has also been the most valuable. Every day I wake with a new sense of purpose in life - to aid others in times of distress. This ambition has motivated me to pursue a career as a physician who treats people in impoverished communities with care and compassion.

Locally, Habitat for Humanity has enabled me to provide affordable, adequate housing to those in need. And through the non for profit I created, the Road Less Traveled Fund, I am able to purchase vehicles for community changers in need of safe transportation. At an international level, organizations such as Invisible Children in Uganda, the Good Shepherd's Orphanage in Haiti, and the Health Development Initiative in Rwanda have provided a means to which my efforts can impact lives outside the comforts of my own home country.

Mere words cannot begin to capture all that has happened in my journey of self-discovery as a Korean and American. And while I have learned many lessons along the way, the one I wish to implement and share is this: "The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all" (Leo Reostein).