Giva Student Scholarship & Worldwide Community Ambassador Winner Essay Series: Joseph Lee

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. The Essay question was, "How will you use your talents and education to make the world a better place for future generations? What are your career and personal goals and why?" We hope that sharing these essays will help others realize the joys and benefits of service.

Giva Scholarship Winning Essay

By Joseph Lee

I am honored to have been awarded a Giva Scholarship. There are many successful companies like Giva that offer scholarship programs. However, Giva has a commitment to this program which begins with the senior leadership. After I was notified that I won the scholarship, I was told that the Giva founder wanted to have a phone call. I was very surprised!  Ron Avignone, Giva founder, took a strong interest in my journey from teaching to medical school and my accomplishments in volunteer projects. He understood the difficulties my parents faced as immigrants as he recounted the difficulties that his grandparents experienced in coming to America. Mr. Avignone explained the importance that service and volunteering plays in his life and at Giva. Giva is a new breed of corporate citizen; the kind of company that has ideas, solutions and practical ways to make an impact on the world. Thanks and gratitude to Ron Avignone and the Community Volunteerism Team at Giva for having this vision and commitment.

Here is my winning essay:

“Are you coming back tomorrow?”

This was the question my 7th and 8th grade students at Parkside Academy asked me on my first day of teaching. Scarred by teachers who had quit midyear, my students expected the same from me; and as the day progressed, I overheard students hypothesizing how long I would last. Despite the emotional burdens of my 34 students, the heat of an unventilated classroom, and the gaffes of being a first year teacher, I felt an overwhelming sense of hope. This hope was rooted in the belief that through difficult circumstances and the disappointments of failure, there would be a better tomorrow.

President Barack Obama spoke of this hope when he stated, “That is why we fight -- in hopes of a day when we no longer need to.” And in Room 312 at Parkside, continue to fight we did. We fought the failures of a school system that provided insufficient materials. We fought the apathy of parents, victims to the brutal injustices of society. We also fought our own fears of the vulnerability that accompanies loving relationships. It is this love between teacher and student; however, that ultimately inspired us till the end. And while it was a grueling journey, the result was the change of every individual involved.

Unfortunately, the growth of both my students and I through two school years could not overcome the stifling feeling of being unable to impact the lives of my students outside of the classroom or even the teachers they would have in coming school years. I wanted to impact more students which shifted my focus from improving educational outcomes to improving the health outcomes through the field of medicine. And as I continue my training to become a pediatrician, I know that my decision to become a doctor will allow me to continue the work I started in Room 312.

The incredible journey began over 30 years ago, when my newlywed parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea with hopes that their children would experience the “American Dream.” With such idealism in mind, they were not prepared for the immense difficulties they would experience as foreigners without a community to embrace them, a language to empower them, or resources to sustain them. And yet, not only did they survive, they thrived. They thrived through sweat and tears and the kindness of a few guardian angels, who graciously supported my mother and father. And through such generosity, my parents came to the conclusion that helping others was the most important objective in life, a lesson they have tried to instill in my older brother and I our entire lives. Whether it be through allowing immigrant families to live in our home while they got settled in the United States, babysitting sick children whose parents were unable to get days off work, or volunteering to speak to teen moms in jail, my parents go above and beyond in giving of themselves to benefit others. And through their example, my brother and I have striven to do the same.

Initial interest in the medical profession was stirred in high school through a volunteer experience at Northside Learning Center, a school serving students with cognitive disabilities. Students partook in a strenuous schedule of occupational therapy and classroom responsibilities relying heavily on compassionate educators and health professionals. The importance of compassion in healthcare was further exemplified in a medical mission’s trip to Panama and a volunteer stint at the St. Louis Effort for Aids. Traveling through a remote village in Panama, our team was able to treat suffering patients. The gratitude of these villagers revealed the true healing power of medicine. While my eyes were opened to the difficulties of obtaining medical care in Panama, one does not have to cross oceans to behold such troubles. A car ride to St. Louis provided a similar experience of destitution and inadequate treatment of those affected by HIV/AIDS. As I volunteered and conversed with patients and community members, I noticed a similar absence of basic care and education and concluded that caring medical professionals could resolve such circumstances.

Transformed by my students and armed with a new fervor to fight inequality, I see myself at the beginning of a long path of serving the under-served. I strive to become more than just another pediatrician who works in a low income community. Instead, I intend to be a medical professional who understands and cares for the innumerable challenges that confront such communities every day. With that said, I continue to stay involved in the lives of my former students and the community they live in through a non for profit I founded called the Road Less Traveled Fund, which provides safe, reliable modes of transportation for students from low income homes that are investing their time and efforts to better the lives of others. Furthermore, being in medicine has opened more doors to bring about meaningful change, both physically and socially: allowing me to becoming a school council member of a local high school, work for a public health organization in Rwanda, travel with a relief team to Haiti and sit on a board with the CEO of my hospital to increase minority enrollment. By working with families as a health professional, I am now able to offer the assistance articulated in Matthew 25:36 and exemplified by my parents so well, “...I was sick, and you cared for me…” From the suffering villagers in Panama to the poverty-stricken students of Room 312, our communities are sick and left to fend for themselves. Yet, hope persists. Hope persists in the lives of those devoted to service and those that refuse to let life’s circumstances subjugate them to mediocre lives. My aspiration in becoming a pediatrician is to keep that hope alive.