Student Profile: Hyewon Chong

By Jennifer H. Nam ’98

 

For this fourth-year biochemistry concentrator, politics is not "just a hobby." Her political activism is a manifestation of her primary interest in racial issues. Her strong belief in alleviating race, class, and gender injustices has prompted her to speak out for what she believes in and to lead several organizations with the purpose of correcting these injustices. Born in Berkeley, California, and raised in San Francisco, Hyewon has always seemed to be aware of the social concerns of her community and of the world around her. As a young child, she contributed the money she received from drawing contests to third world missions. In high school, she made a speech to the San Francisco Board of Education against proposed public school budget cuts. Her concern for her community has also prompted her to join campaigns backing garment workers, especially since some of her high school friends and their parents worked in sweatshops themselves.

Hyewon’s parents have played an influential role in her life, for they have showed her the importance of being humanitarian. Hyewon is aware of all the hardships they have endured, including Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and immigration to America. Caesar Chavez has also served as her role model, because his spirited character and conviction helped him overcome a dire situation. "This Chicano worker decided to take a stand and become a leader rather than remaining one of the many voiceless, suffering workers. With his success in changing the dynamics of power, he has become somewhat of an icon for other young activist Chicanos." Hyewon believes that the Korean American community needs a strong leader. For the Korean American community, "there is no Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Jesse Jackson. [The community] needs a leader and a vision."

Hyewon’s earlier progressive political activism involved more general concerns such as education. Her primary focus on ethnic issues was a result of several experiences. One life-shaping event was the LA uprising, during which she felt an immediate connection and identification with her fellow Korean Americans. She feels a lot of what happened as a result of the Rodney King verdict symbolizes a conflict between Blacks and Whites in America. "Somehow, the way it ended up was that the Koreans had borne the brunt of the anger, the violence, the damage." Another personal experience brought her face-to-face with blatant racial discrimination. During an Easter luncheon at a country club, Hyewon’s party was seated in an almost empty room, where the only other family was Black. It made her realize that "you can become really wealthy, you can be a prominent member of your community…but you can still be treated with the same racial discrimination. It’s not confined to a class thing." What made her sad was the fact that people can be blinded by their own prosperity. Her sister’s family did not take notice of the racial separation.

Hyewon believes that this is "reality that confronts the ideal." Such life experiences are examples of how life "challenges what you want to see." She sees how "internally, you may be trying to adapt to your environment, but externally, people will still see you as different. I guess I see assimilation as a false promise." Hyewon is aware of the incredible injustices faced by certain segments of the society. She believes that there are people who are simply isolated from noticing such discrimination. "I don’t want to be part of a society that passively allows such injustices to happen just because people aren’t blowing up in their faces." She does not see herself as a role model; she would just like to see others reflect upon themselves to overcome their apathy, to make a choice and then take some action. "I’d like to see people socially aware, not just politically. I guess I’d tell others to read a lot and think a lot, but don’t stop there." She believes in a quote by Antonio Gramsci: "The intellectual’s error consists in believing that one can know without understanding, and even more without feeling and being impassioned." The reason why she really wants people to think about who they are, about what their role might be in society, and about what they want to accomplish, is that if they really observe what goes on in society, they will be impassioned to do something about it. She does not put forth her opinions looking for approval or recognition. "What I really want to see is some of the problems addressed."

In her four years here, Hyewon has succeeded in leading several organizations, including, most recently, the Academic Affairs Committee. This organization aims to bring in courses and faculty for Asian American, American Latino, and Native American studies at Harvard. She personally hopes that there will ultimately be institutional backing for this field in the form of a department. "People can’t have a clear picture of history with such incredible gaps in it." She’s been involved in Ethnic Studies since her sophomore year, during which time she participated in a rally to endorse the study of different ethnicities. An Educational Policies Committee subcommittee was formed to study the problem, but after the Faculty Council negated the proposal, the committee dissolved and very few of the reforms that were sought, such as the forming of an Ethnic Studies standing committee, were enacted. More recently, she has become involved wit the Ethnic Studies Action Committee (ESAC) and hopes that the ESAC will bring about more permanent, significant effects. Hyewon has also been one of the founders of Boston’s Coalition for Garment Workers, and last year, she won a Harvard Foundation award for contributing to the improvement of race relations. In addition, she helped found Harvard’s KACC (Korean Americans for Culture and Community) which focuses on Korean folk art, especially traditional music, and on Korean American studies, such as Korean American immigrant history. Such activities represent her concern for race relations, ethnic studies, and social injustice.

Hyewon’s plans for the future are not definite, although she hopes that whatever she does will show her passion for justice. Originally planning to be a research scientist, hoping to "cut back the cancers of the body," she realized that a more insidious and widespread cancer is the "cancer of the soul." She wants to make a difference and to be able to say that she has "fought the good fight." She hopes to be a voice for the "voiceless" people of color and of poverty. Her plans for the immediate future include being a full-time organizer and activist in California to speak out for Korean immigrant female workers who are exploited in the assembling of electronics in Silicon Valley and who are exposed to a hazardous environment. Hyewon feels she is in the position to make people listen, and hopefully, she will help these women become comfortable enough to speak out for themselves.