Queens Rhodes Scholar Makes History

 Jin Kyu Park. Photos courtesy of Jin Kyu Park.

Jin Kyu Park. Photos courtesy of Jin Kyu Park.

By Christina Carrega

The well-renowned Rhodes Scholars program has reached new heights and broken barriers this year with their selection of a Flushing native.

Jin Kyu Park became the first ever undocumented American immigrant — covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — selected for the academic scholarship. With this opportunity, Park’s goal is to build a career as an advocate for immigrant communities, and to provoke our governments to take immigrants’ rights and health seriously.

“My parents went through their whole lives without health insurance, I want to use my education to focus on immigrants and healthcare and how they intersect with the American system,” Park told the Eagle on Tuesday.

Park was born in South Korea and came to New York with his family in 2003. During his time in New York, Park resided in the heavily populated immigrant borough of Queens and traveled to school in Harlem using public transportation.

“I had to get up at the crack of dawn to get to school by 8,” said Park with a giggle. “I took the Q15 bus to the No. 7 train express to Times Square to the No. 2 train to E. 96th Street. to the local No. 1 train to E. 116th Street.”

Park, 22, was the first student from The High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College accepted to Harvard University where he is currently a senior studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with a minor in Ethnicity, Migration and Rights.

As a DACA recipient, Park used his freshman year to pave the way for others by becoming the Founder and Director of HigherDreams, Inc., a non-profit organization that develops resources for undocumented students applying to college.

Since 2012, when former President Barack Obama announced DACA, until Park was a senior in high school, the language surrounding the policy was “not sophisticated,” he said.

Park applied to almost three dozen colleges and universities, but only got into four.

“Colleges didn’t know how to deal with us,” said Park, who now trains guidance counselors on how to help undocumented students going through the higher education application process.

In the Rhodes Scholars’ 116 years of existence, this is the first time DACA recipients were eligible. This was also the most diverse year for Rhodes recipients. Of the 32 American winners, 21 are women and half are either first generation Americans or immigrants. Applications first opened to women in 1976 and 13 women earned the award that year.

“These Scholars plan to study a wide range of fields across the social sciences, biological and medical sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, and the humanities. They are certain to enrich our future,” said Elliot F. Gerson, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, in a statement.

Park is a published journalist and was the Managing Editor of the Harvard Undergraduate Research Journal for three years. He is also a research assistant at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT where he helps elucidate the mechanisms of T-cell exhaustion.

As a Rhodes Scholar, Park will have all expenses paid — on average between $70,000 to $250,000 per year — to enroll for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England where he plans to do a masters degree in Migration Studies and Global Health Science and Epidemiology.

Rhodes Scholars not only have to have outstanding academics, they “should show great promise of leadership. In short, we seek outstanding young men and women of intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service.” Gerson said. “These basic characteristics are directed at fulfilling Mr. (Wil of Cecil) Rhodes’s hopes that the Rhodes Scholars would make an important and positive contribution throughout the world. In Rhodes’s words, his Scholars should 'esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim.'"

Over 850 students from around the world were endorsed by their college or university to get considered for the scholarship. In addition to the 32 Americans, students from 60 countries will enroll together at Oxford in 2019.

The excitement of becoming a part of the elite group of scholars has not settled in Park’s mind yet.

“I haven’t been out of the country for 15 years since I got here. All I feel is thankfulness to my friends, community and family,” said Park. “Leaving the country as an undocumented immigrant is huge, I don't know how I will feel until I get there.”