After two years working in Korea for the Fulbright Korea Commission — first as a teacher, then as a program coordinator for the English Teaching Assistant program — coming to Cambridge felt like something of a homecoming to Esther Hwi-Young Kim, who grew up in the Boston area. Still, she felt some anxiety before arriving on campus as a member of the Prevention Science and Practice (PSP) cohort last August.
“I was curious and a bit anxious about how my peers and professors would perceive me, given that I was new to the school counseling field and was also readjusting to life in the United States after working in Korea for the past two years,” says Kim, noting that she had to prepare herself for “reverse culture shock,” as well as any changes that may have taken place when she was gone. “I knew that moving back to the Boston area would evoke strong emotional reactions within me, and that I would need to take preventative measures to care for myself and stay connected with my support networks throughout this season of transition.”
The care she took with her own transition is something that she will remember as she embarks on a new career as a school adjustment counselor. First, though, she will take another year at HGSE to complete the Certificate of Advanced Study (C.A.S.) in Counseling Program, where she will continue to hone her counseling skills and cross-cultural competencies while exploring ways to center and amplify student voices.
“Esther is a brilliant choice to be this year’s ICA recipient for PSP. I cannot count the number of times a faculty member, staff, or student referred to Esther’s wisdom and gracious personality,” says Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer. “Esther often shares poignant and critical insights that help push her peers and faculty toward new insights, particularly when it comes to reflecting on our own positionalities and roles in the work. Her deep commitment to all of the communities of which she is a part is a model of what it means to use the work to create positive change in the world.”
Kim will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award for PSP at Convocation on May 24. Here, she reflects on her time at HGSE and her life in education.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year?
Throughout this past year, I received endless inspiration from my peers at HGSE. I feel honored to share life and learning with such brilliant, committed educators who are all striving to make this world a better place in their own spheres of influence. From supporting undocumented students in light of the current U.S. political landscape, to integrating restorative justice practices within school settings, to creating culturally-sensitive approaches to promote young peoples’ intersectional identity formation and mental wellness, and so much more. There is never enough time for me to acknowledge my gratitude for my peers and faculty, and the ways they’ve generously shared their time, insight, and encouragement with me and the larger HGSE community.
I also stay inspired by reminding myself of the journey that I’ve been on, and the countless people from my personal upbringing and throughout history who have sacrificially paved the way for me to be who I am today. In particular, I lift up activists Audre Lorde and Grace Lee Boggs whose writings and work gave me the words and courage to keep on loving and living in full, as a proud Asian American woman, daughter of Korean immigrants, future school counselor, and life-long learner.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?
Clarify and concretize your goals before and throughout your time at HGSE. Are your curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular investments of time and energy aligned with the goals you have set for yourself? Where do you want to see yourself post-graduation? What skills or experience do you need to develop in order to accomplish those goals?
Share meals and coffee/tea with your peers. Your peers can be your greatest and richest source of support, knowledge, and inspiration.
Also, take time to step outside of Cambridge and learn about the localized realities in the Boston area. Ground your classroom learning in tangible and concrete contexts. For PSP students, seek out opportunities to immerse yourself in the community spaces and lived realities of the students and families at your practicum placements.
Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for …
Making myself a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s become a daily ritual-of-sorts: setting aside a few moments each morning to breathe deeply and center myself while waiting for the hot water to filter down. I also prioritize sharing meals and quality time with people I love!
What will you change in education and why?
Every person has their own richly complex web of stories to tell, and I’m excited to continue walking with young people in their own journeys of breaking silences, giving voice to their lived experiences, and envisioning what a more just, liberating world can look and feel like.
I will continue resisting against burnout and learned hopelessness for myself professionally as a counselor and personally as a community member and Asian American woman. I will infuse love and care into my practice and make efforts to ensure that people feel seen, heard, and affirmed in the complexities of our identities and experiences. I will not wait for someone else to model this work for me.
In my practice, I will resist against the systemic prioritization of academic outcomes and behavioral control at the cost of young peoples’ identity development, empowerment, and community formation.
I will leverage my positionalities as an educator, a school counselor, and as an Asian American woman with an HGSE master’s degree, to work alongside youth to center their voice and power to transform educational systems and larger society in which we all live. I will celebrate even the “littlest” victories and never lose sight of the end goal — that is, liberation for all as liberation for one.