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Alumni Profile: What makes an American an American?

Posted by:
November 28, 2018
By Genny Boots '18
PLU Alum

This is a question Thomas Kim ‘15 thinks about often. As a newly married third-year law student with employment lined up after graduation, an activist philanthropist and an upstanding community member, Kim checks all the “American” boxes.

Except for one: actually being a legal citizen.

Kim is one of the approximately 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients in the United States. DACA grants temporary visas to young people who arrived in the United States with their parents as undocumented immigrants.

While Kim might not be an American legally, he is certainly a Lute. Kim graduated in 2015 with degrees in mathematical economics and psychology and a minor in statistics. Currently, he is in his third year at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law School at Arizona State University in Phoenix, AZ.

“PLU really set things well for me,” Kim said.

But the college path was not easy for Kim. His family emigrated from South Korea in 2005 and entered the United States on a year-long visitor visa. His parents bought a dry cleaning business south of Portland, Oregon, and hired a lawyer to help them get green cards. That lawyer cheated Kim and his family, taking their money and chance for legal status.

As a high school student who was well aware of his family’s immigration status and financial capabilities, Kim figured college wasn’t in the cards.

“My post-high school plan was to go to the local community college and go to night school and during the day I would work at a teriyaki restaurant,” Kim said. “Of course getting paid under the table.”

But one of Kim’s high school track friends was going to PLU and told him about the merit-based scholarship opportunities he could qualify for.

So Kim applied and took a Greyhound from Portland for Presidential Scholarships Weekend to interview for one of PLU’s five full-tuition Regents’ Scholarships. He was selected.

Four years later, after working 30 hours a week to pay for room and board and leading numerous campus clubs and organizations, Kim left PLU with two majors and one minor.

Task Force working with and for Undocumented Students

Signs at PLU supporting undocumented students

The Task Force working with and for Undocumented Students advocates for undocumented students by coordinating campus trainings, connecting the community to on- and off-campus resources, and eliminating barriers to student success.

Kim is just one of many students who attend PLU with undocumented or DACA status. The official number is not known in an effort to protect the security and privacy of such students.

Kim has some advice for current undocumented students at PLU.

“Don’t ever settle for a no. If I had settled for a no when my immigration attorney cheated us, I would not be here,” Kim said.

“I was hurt we were hurt and betrayed and disappointed. And I was mad and I was bitter,” said Kim. “And so I figured, I am not the smartest kid in the room, but as long as I don’t cheat I could make a better lawyer than he ever was. And that was when I wanted to become a lawyer who helped families like mine.”