By Catherine Han, MD MS Program Coordinator
Photos & Media courtesy of Catherine
Hi Everyone! 안녕! 🤗
My name is Catherine Hyowon Han (한효원) (she/her/hers), the new Virginia Middle School Program Coordinator. Today, I will be taking over the blog to share a bit more about myself and my path to AALEAD.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood while also being surrounded by members of my own community, I found it challenging to navigate my Asian-American/Korean American identity. I was either too Asian for my white peers based on my appearance or not Asian enough for some of my Asian peers since I did not speak Korean fluently. I always felt like I was in this gray area trying to make sense of it all. Many times, I would find myself trying to hide certain aspects of myself to appeal to others. One example I remember so vividly is when my mom would pack me Korean food for my school lunch. My classmates would ask with disgust and laughing, “What is that smell?” From that moment, I would hide my lunch with my lunch box practically closed and open it for a split second to take a quick bite of my meal so that I wouldn’t be a nuisance to others. Also, I remember not wanting to feel even more outcast by my peers, so I would not listen to Korean music or share my culture with others.
As for my Asian/Korean community, I also remember feeling not 100% connected with my heritage. Growing up, my parents never forced the Korean language onto my siblings and me because they did not want their children to go through the same struggle that they did when they first entered the United States of learning a new language. Thus, the primary language in my home was English. My parents did enroll me in Korean school and did talk to my siblings and me in some Korean to reduce some of the language barriers when talking with my grandparents, who only speak Korean. I also did Taekwondo growing up, which helped me stay somewhat connected and grounded with my culture, but my heart was yearning for even more.
As I was progressing through each grade from elementary, middle, to high school, I was not presented or aware of many opportunities to explore my identity in a safe and welcoming environment.
This all changed when I entered college at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell). I had the great privilege of being a part of AAPI-student organizations (also known as “Sister Clubs”) on campus, not only as a member but as an executive board member for the Korean Student Association and The Filipino Club, as well as serving as the head coordinator of Asian Night which showcased Asian cultures. The aspiration of the event is to reconnect AAPIs with their roots and empower others to be proud of their heritage. It was such a wonderful experience to be surrounded by such a beautiful community who were so passionate and enthusiastic about connecting, empowering, and honoring each of our unique lived experiences. I began to see the true beauty and started embracing my heritage, community, and story during this time. This was just the beginning of my journey in understanding my calling and purpose: to live a life of service.
My work with the AAPI community continued when I went to graduate school at Columbia University School of Social Work (CSSW). During my time in grad school, I served as one of the co-leaders of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Caucus. Within this caucus, we advocated for addressed issues facing the AAPI community through programming, events, and collaborations with other student caucuses and the larger community at my school.
As much as I have a passion for my AAPI community, I also have a strong interest in working specifically with youth. My interest first started with my upbringing as being the oldest of five in my family. I have been continuing my work with youth in a professional capacity. Some of the work I have done include being a Taekwondo instructor, serving as a peer liaison and mentor for a mentorship program, a social work intern at a community-based organization in an elementary school, and a social work intern at a non-profit legal services organization that provides both legal and non-legal services to support unaccompanied immigrant youth needs.
As I entered the next chapter of my life, I knew that I wanted to bring my passion for social justice and advocacy to support and uplift the community that hits close to home. When the opportunity to join AALEAD came, I knew this was the exact work I wanted to be doing! Younger Catherine would have benefited so greatly from the support that AALEAD provides. I am excited to utilize my personal and professional background in my role as Virginia Middle School Program Coordinator. I am looking forward to integrating my approach of being trauma-informed, holistic, and culturally affirming, all while co-creating a place of safety and growth for the youth in a collaborative and fun manner.