Dawoom Jung on Keeping an Open Mind, Self-care, and Student Life

Dawoom Jung (D.J.) is a Graduate Assistant at University Life. She is studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy with a specialization in International Organizations and U.N. Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). In this blog, she reflects on her journey at Columbia, working with University Life, experiences as an international student, and goals for the future.

May 13, 2024

This interview was edited for length, clarity, and style.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and what made you want to come to Columbia?

I was born in South Korea, but I grew up in India for most of my life. For 14 years, I lived in a small, small town called Aurangabad. Our family was the only international family there, so I assimilated into Indian culture from a young age.

We moved to India because of my dad’s work. We did a trial run where our entire family stayed in a hotel for a month. My siblings and I were so excited about going to a different country. Everything was different and fascinating, and surprisingly, we acclimated well so we decided to stay. I moved away after 14 years, for college, but my parents stayed for almost 20 years. 

I had a very unique experience because I did not go to an international school. I went to a local school in my town, which meant I studied Hindi, the national language, and Marathi, the local language. Despite being the only foreigner in class, my friends never treated me differently. I always thought that I was just the same as they were. 

Childhood photo in India

When it was time to apply to colleges, I wanted to go to the States, but my dad said, “I think you should apply to colleges in Korea because you have never lived there. You need to go find your roots.” 

I agreed, as long as classes were taught in English because, at that point, my Korean was quite poor. If I had to take classes in Korean, I would have struggled.

Fortunately, I found the perfect match for me, which was going to an English-language liberal arts institution in Korea called Underwood International College. I majored in international studies there. We had limited resources and few professors, but I still loved it. I met some of my best friends there, who were all third-culture kids like me. I finally felt like I belonged somewhere.

I did also find my roots, as my father wished. My Korean improved, and I also got to experience the Korean work culture. But I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree and the English-language programs offered in Korea were extremely limited. So I decided to go to the States to study. Initially, I was set on doing a master’s program in Washington D.C. but I realized the number of International Students was much higher here and I decided to come to Columbia instead.

Additionally, SIPA has a good human rights program with professors who are also practitioners. The proximity to the United Nations headquarters also made it so much better.

I feel like I’ve come full circle. I used to participate in Model UNs and I remember having conversations with my friends in high school saying how I could never go into the private sector because of how exploitative it is. They're always exploiting people and exploiting the earth. 

I saw these friends later in life, and they reminded me of the conversations we had. Maybe this is what I'm supposed to be doing, you know? I'm glad to have made that connection.

I think I found my path – almost. Human rights and humanitarian policy is such a huge field. It's still my homework to narrow down what I want to do within the field.

I want to do something related to education, students, or children’s rights. I love working in higher ed. In undergrad, I worked as a residential assistant and we would host these wonderful events – similar to what I do at University Life. I love this part of the job. 

I hope there will be some way to bring these two sides of me together – my academic side in human rights and my extracurricular side in student life.

“Keep an open mind. Once you get here, you have a better idea of what resources are available, what classes you can take, and what professors are here. Talk to a lot of people – fellow students, seniors, professors, or academic advisors, and see what other options are available for you.”

Dawoom Jung (D.J.) SIPA'24

What have you been involved in outside the classroom? 

Working at University Life is the largest chunk of my schedule. By law, I can only work 20 hours per week as a graduate assistant, and I always max out my hours. The hardest part has been balancing working here and doing other extracurriculars. I don't want to miss out on what my school has to offer. 

SIPA hosts many wonderful social events and even ones with high-profile guest speakers. There are also community hours and networking events throughout the semester. I try my best to attend these events while balancing work and classes. 

I was also on the executive board of Korea Focus, a SIPA club specializing in Korean politics, culture, and history. I loved meeting fellow Korean students and sharing parts of our culture with non-Korean students through our events.

I also live in International House, so there are a lot of fun extracurricular things that happen there too. One of my favorite activities is the weekly basketball games at I-house. I have met some amazing friends through this, and I wish I had joined sooner.

What's been your favorite class? 

One of the most enjoyable classes was the Humanitarian Crisis Simulation class with Professor Jeffrey Klenk. It’s just a two-day course but it was fun because we got to play out a humanitarian disaster situation and act according to the different roles assigned to us. And the best part was that we had no written assignments!

I also really liked the Human Rights Research and Reporting class by Professor Andrew Heinrich and the Applied Peacebuilding class by Professor Zachary Metz. Both professors were practitioners, so they would come to class with stories from the field. I generally liked classes by professors who could relate real experiences to the material we were learning. 

What have been some of your most memorable experiences during your time as a student? 

Some of my favorite experiences within University Life were the end-of-semester events, Night at Butler and Low Lounge, hosted by the Events Council.

Last semester, the theme “Summer in December” was so fun. I had a great time hanging out with all the Ambassadors, getting to know them, and just seeing how so many people were excited about what we had prepared for them. It feels good to see other people happy. That was one of my favorite memories.

D.J. at Low Lounge Summer in December

On the academic side, my capstone project was one of my favorite memories. Every single student in my program has to do a capstone project. Some of us get to travel to do the research. 

This spring break, I went back to India after eight years away to do my capstone project with UNICEF. It was so meaningful being back in India and doing impactful work. I met all these amazing people working in the office and all these stakeholders whose lives were going to be impacted by our research. 

Our research was on the localization of disaster management. We were looking at this one district in the northeast of India. It's a very small district. But in 2022, they had unusually heavy floods. That district was a great example of local leaders coming together to manage and coordinate resources. UNICEF does disaster management, but local support is also key to recovery. 

We studied how the district responded to the disaster and we are now working on how their success can be replicated in other parts of the country. Our research is also examining: Where can UNICEF step in and help them do even better in disaster response?

Who have been some of your mentors here at Columbia? 

Stephanie Busch, from University Life. She is the best boss I've ever had. She embodies leadership through her actions, inspiring me with her authenticity and hard work. She is so approachable and supportive, I feel like I could go to her for any problem.

Because I didn’t grow up in the States, this was my first time working in an American office. There’s a lot of little things about the American work culture that I had to pick up on. For example, small talk was one thing I had to learn. Another thing is how we navigate conflict. In my past jobs in Korea, conflicts were often suppressed because of the hierarchy and cultural expectations. Here, these things still get brought up, and they get brought up in a professional way. Anytime something happens, I go to Stephanie, and she always finds a solution and gives me advice about how to approach difficult conversations. That’s something I really value about working with her.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It's okay to not be the best. It's okay to just give up sometimes. If you are burnt out, take a break. If you miss home, go home if you can. Your mental health is more important in the long run than getting through everything as fast as you can.”

Dawoom Jung (D.J.) SIPA'24

What advice do you have for new students who are going to be coming to Columbia in Fall 2024?

Use your first semester to figure out what you want to do! 

When I first came here, I was pursuing a completely different track. Thankfully, within SIPA, we can switch our concentrations. Once you get here, it's easier to look at what resources are in front of you. 

I switched my academic focus in my first semester. When I got here, I was able to gauge that International Security wouldn't be a good fit for me. When I looked at the students in that particular major, it was all American students or folks from the foreign ministries of their countries. A lot of them also had a military background. That is not me. I completely switched my academic direction once I realized that. 

My number one advice is: Keep an open mind. Talk to a lot of people – fellow students, seniors, professors, or academic advisors, and see what other options are available for you. 

A lot of us don’t know what we are doing and what we want to do for the rest of our lives. The pressure is high, but you are allowed to make mistakes. So, take your time, do your research, and change your mind as many times as you need!

Do you have any advice for international students, specifically? 

Most international students have a bigger burden to succeed here. We're paying a lot of money to study so far away from home. We have made a lot of sacrifices to be here. 

I think there’s always a pressure to try to make the most of our time here. 

I know other cultures have this too, but being Asian, you have to be a perfect student and a perfect child. There's so much pressure from family.

A lot of people want to try to fit everything in those two or four years. They'll take extra credit or extra jobs and sacrifice their social life or their mental health. It’s okay to do the things that make you happy.

I just want to say: Don’t be so hard on yourself. It's okay to not be the best. It's okay to just give up sometimes. If you are burnt out, take a break. If you miss home, go home if you can. Your mental health is more important in the long run than getting through everything as fast as you can. 

D.J. with her best friend on Low steps

Anything else you want to share? Friendship memories? Restaurants?

It's funny. When I was in Korea, I never wanted to eat Korean food. I was always looking for the next fancy taco place or a good Italian restaurant. But as soon as I got here, I craved it so much! If you want some Korean home food, you should go to Woorijip in K-town. So affordable and so good! 

Also, I met my best friend at orientation. I was grumpy because I didn't want to be there at 9 in the morning. This girl just sat next to me and we started talking. One of our first activities together was going to Insomnia Cookies at midnight because they were giving out free cookies. They always do that at the beginning of the year. It’s a pajama party, so if you dress in pajamas, they give you a free cookie. We went again at the beginning of this academic year too! It became our yearly activity but I’m sad that we are graduating now, and we won’t be able to continue this tradition.

What are you looking forward to after graduation? 

Finding a job that I really like. I'm looking forward to finding a job where I really like the people I’m working with. I’ve loved working at University Life. I love the people here. I want to work in an office with people who have the energy and positivity where I can flourish as a person.

I am still applying to jobs at this moment so please wish me luck!

D.J. in regalia on Revson Plaza

Want to share your story with us? Fill out this form or write to us at [email protected], if you'd like to connect with us about Student Voices.