Rethinking the Rhodes: Meet the Scholarship's First Undocumented Winner

Jin Park, a Harvard pre-med student, became the first DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship after a rule change made him eligible.
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The sun rises on Magdalen College at Oxford University on May 1st, 2018, in Oxford, England.

The sun rises on Magdalen College at Oxford University on May 1st, 2018, in Oxford, England.

When Harvard University first nominated Jin Park, a senior, for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in 2017, the university knew that Park was ineligible for the award. The issue was neither Park's grades nor his accomplishments (he was the founder and director of a national non-profit). Instead, the problem came from Park's citizenship status: He was undocumented.

Park had lived in the Queens borough of New York City since he was seven. He was a New Yorker, but he lacked an American passport, and, on paper, he was a South Korean citizen. Living as an undocumented immigrant, he had only managed to attend Harvard after he'd applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program under President Barack Obama. Park's DACA status shielded him from deportation, but it also made him ineligible for the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University in the United Kingdom: The committee in charge of screening applicants in the United States refused to consider DACA recipients.

Harvard nominated Park anyway. Its model for what Park calls a "protest endorsement" came from the university's own history: In 1973, Harvard endorsed three women for the scholarship, knowing full well that the Rhodes committee would refuse to even consider female applicants. The committee rejected the female candidates, but the university's protest—and the broader feminist movement in academia—succeeded in pressuring the committee to offer the scholarship to women just two years later.

This time, it took one year for the Rhodes committee to evolve. After rejecting Park in 2017, the officials in charge of the scholarship amended its bylaws. In 2018, DACA recipients became eligible for the award, and Park learned he would be the first DACA recipient to become a Rhodes Scholar in early November.

Pacific Standard spoke with Park about the journey to the Rhodes, his aspirations, and how his background informs his mindset and his studies as he works to become a medical doctor.

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There have been some curves in your path toward becoming a Rhodes scholar. What has this process been like for you?

Senior year of college, I had a limited amount of time left on my original DACA, and I knew that I wanted to use it on behalf of the undocumented community, particularly in efforts to secure health care and access to health [services]. So I approached the fellowships office at Harvard and asked them, "What opportunities are there to do that kind of work?"

At that time, they didn't know that I was undocumented. But given my profile—the right grades and achievements—they pointed me toward the Rhodes, the Marshall, some of these other postgraduate fellowships. Then I told them that I was undocumented. They were really gracious and said, "You know, even though you're not eligible, let's just try." Harvard has a history of doing these kind of "protest endorsements." But I wasn't invited to interview for the Rhodes that year. It was a no-go.

What changed this year?

What's changed is that the Rhodes Trust has decided to allow DACA recipients to apply. That's a big change. They've also added new Global Rhodes Scholarships for anybody in the world, regardless of country affiliation or citizenship status. So the Rhodes is rethinking what it means for somebody to be a member of a country based on their citizenship, which is a legal category—I think they're trying to think broader about what membership and belonging look like.

Could you tell me about your background? When did your family first come the United States?

We came from South Korea when I was seven. There were a lot of reasons why we left, but I think one of the main reasons was the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s. My parents were having difficulty getting employed. They wanted to provide better lives for themselves, and for me, their only child. So we came to the U.S. and settled in Queens.

When I first came to New York in the 2000s, 15 years ago now, the public consciousness in New York about unauthorized immigrants was, even then, already such that I, as an undocumented person, was able to go through public school without being kicked out. And I had some access to health care.

You've had a unique blend of coursework: biology, migration studies, global health science. How has your background informed your studies?

I came into Harvard with a lot of formative experiences growing up as an undocumented kid in New York City. I wanted to become a doctor, and so I was a pre-med student, hoping to go to medical school and then come back to take care of patients in Queens.

Along the way, I've learned that to really do that work effectively you need to know how to effectuate policy, you need to understand what the trends in migration are, and why people move. And you also need to understand what it means to organize society in a just and moral manner. So all those very broad questions led me to study other things. I've had a very interdisciplinary undergraduate experience.

Can you explain why a doctor, or someone creating health policy, might need to know about something like migration patterns to properly take care of people?

Because of the way that medical education is structured, it's often hard for trainees to understand that, when a patient walks into your clinic, they are not walking in with just biochemical and pathophysiological kinds of mechanisms of disease. There are a lot of social determinants for why that person is there.

For example, in a lot of metropolitan cities, low-income and homeless patients are very prone to opportunistic infections and certain skin conditions. And as a physician, when a patient comes into your clinic, the first thing you're trying to do is come up with a diagnosis. But if you don't know the social context of the patient, the diagnoses you make are going to be skewed. The possibilities of diagnoses in your head as a doctor change based on the social determinants that the patient has come into the clinic with.

In September of 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would end DACA—the program that has made so much possible for you. What was it like when you heard that news?

That was, to be honest, a very scary moment. I had to reckon with the fact that there was a very real possibility that I might have to pack up and leave.

But what then happened is I felt like I was called to do something on behalf of my community. I had this immense opportunity that Harvard afforded me—not only education, but also the institutional protections that come with being a Harvard student. So I went on MSNBC, and I talked about my own story, and why it's important to talk about DACA in a nuanced and complicated way.

How much has your own experience as an undocumented person affected your mindset as a doctor-in-training?

My entire life experience in America is very much affected by immigration status, because immigration status dramatically affects how you interact with institutions, with practices, and with other people in America. This sounds very abstract, but to make it very concrete: If you are an undocumented person, you are denied access to most health care. My life experience has taught me that this thing called "health"—this, in some ways, very sterilized and reduced concept—is insufficient to really take care of the whole person, to take care of someone like me, an undocumented kid in New York City.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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