MCB undergraduate Jin Park’s parents came to Flushing, New York from South Korea when he was seven. Their dream was to provide their son with the best possible education and opportunities. Over ten years later, their efforts were rewarded with his acceptance at Harvard, despite the significant impediment that he and his family are undocumented.
“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle for me as I navigated the college application process,” Park said. “My philosophy during that time is the same as what I tell students today: apply as broadly as possible and don’t be afraid to tell your story.”
Despite the continuing uncertainty of his situation, Park decided to help other undocumented students by creating the website and nonprofit group Higher Dreams. The site offers legal, practical, and financial information on applying for college, all for the benefit of undocumented high schoolers. The program also offers training for high school guidance counselors, school outreach programs, and a networking forum for undocumented students to share information and experiences.
“The biggest challenge was, and still remains, the uncertainty,” Park said. “The vast majority of colleges don’t have a coherent policy when it comes to admitting and financing undocumented students. I remember when I applied to college, I would call a school to ask whether they would accept me, and I would get a different response when I called in the morning or in the afternoon.”
That uncertainty is likely to get worse in the coming years. The new presidential administration has promised a hard line approach to undocumented immigrants, though the details of new policies have not yet been defined. For now, Park is one of the many students granted temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but that policy does not offer a path to citizenship.
“The next four years are going to be very difficult for me personally, and for the work we do,” Park said. “The national priorities have changed so drastically. It’s only been two months since my visit to the White House to receive the Champions of Change award [for Higher Dreams]. It speaks to how different things will be, but also how important our work will be going forward.”
“What keeps me going personally is the emails I get from students who use Higher Dreams and benefit from what we do,” Park said. “I get emails periodically from students all over the country telling me that they didn’t know that applying to college would be possible for them, and that although it was a lot of work, Higher Dreams outlined the pressure points for them as they applied.”
Those emails have also bolstered Park through his demanding school schedule.
“One of the things I hold most dearly about my education at Harvard is how diverse my course load has been,” Park said. “The MCB concentration has really imparted scientific rigor, especially through the upper level classes. Outside of these classes, I’ve taken classes in the philosophy department, the social studies department, and even at HGSE. These classes have allowed me to explore immigration from an academic setting, which has been especially valuable for my service work.”
What started as a college advice website for high schoolers has grown to encompass advocacy, and Park has assembled a team of volunteers to help with finance, outreach, technology, and media. Though the core of the organization remains college application resources for undocumented students, there are several areas where Park is planning improvements.
“Expansion is really big for us right now,” Park said. “The state-by-state legal breakdown is a really important aspect that we plan on updating, given that many states have moved to be less restrictive for undocumented students. Expansion for us is also happening on the outreach side. We are currently working with a few local high schools to put on an event for parents of non-English speaking families.”
Working with younger students reminds Park of his own experiences discovering science in high school.
“I worked in a gene discovery lab in high school, and I just loved how much of a meritocracy it was,” Park said. “My immigration status didn’t matter for my ability to generate good data.”
Park is planning on continuing his work with undocumented immigrants in the future, and hopes to combine his love of science with his desire to help his community.
“I’m a junior so I’m definitely thinking about next steps,” Park said. “For now, I am looking to combine the rigor of science and community service by doing evidence-based health policy for immigrants. Eventually I’d like to go to medical school to learn how to take care of vulnerable patients, both as a doctor and as a policy maker.”