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Keish Kim '16 Interview

Interviewer: India Rowena Miraglia

Keish Kim

Keish Kim ’16 spoke about her time at and experiences after Syracuse University at a Women and Gender Studies panel on April 13, 2018. Kim, an alum of the WGS undergraduate program, is currently pursuing a doctorate in American Studies at Harvard University. Within American Studies, Kim is looking at cultural productions by queer and undocumented artists in the United States. With this, she wants to highlight different definitions of belonging and collectivity, definitions that go against the ones presented by the nation. Below, Kim talks more about WGS, her background and her presence in and interactions with academia.

How did you first decide to become involved in the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Syracuse?

My entrance is different than a lot of people. I came to Syracuse through organizing. My entry to Syracuse and how I funded my education has been through the advocacy work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities) and Linda Carty (Associate Professor of African American Studies).Therefore, I sort of had the two of them mentoring me and looking out for me in different ways. For me to actually declare WGS took a little longer. As an immigrant trying to figure out a better life for my future and my parents’ future, I was trying to go into policy work/law school. I took a lot of Maxwell classes in the beginning. Then, I took a WGS class with Robin Riley (Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies) and realized that WGS was where I felt most comfortable being myself and where I did not always having to try to defend my thoughts and ideas, which was happening a lot elsewhere.

What do you mean by organizing?

I grew up in Georgia. I migrated to the US when I was eight. Our family did not have papers. I had a lot of trouble: being undocumented and accessing higher education after high school. Through my frustration, I started organizing with other undocumented young people in Georgia. We co-founded several organizations. With “Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance” we fought deportation cases and did “know your rights” workshops within our community. On the education front, we co-founded Freedom University. That was meant to create a college-level education space for undocumented students who are banned from attaining higher education in Georgia.

Was it hard to transition from your position in organizations to Syracuse?

Very hard. There is a different way of navigating when you’re coming from grassroots organizing. When we wanted to do something we didn’t need to get it vetted. We don’t have somebody overseeing us, telling us what to do or telling us what is right or wrong. If we felt like we need to do something—whether that is confronting klansmen or tea party members, or disrupting Senate hearings—we just do it. When you come to an academic space there is a way of performing; you’re interacting with a professor. I realized that a lot of the ways that I spoke, a lot of the ways that I presented my ideas, posed a challenge. It felt like I was disrupting the classroom and that I made people uncomfortable. There was a lot of retaliation (though not blatant) and resistance to how I acted as a student. The transition was very hard. I think that WGS gave me a space and recognized that there was a reason why I was performing the way I was performing—and that the way I was carrying my knowledge was valid.

You talked a lot in your presentation about your resistance or fight against theory, and also the conflict between theory and how those ideas are evident in real life. Can you talk more about that?

Before coming to Syracuse, there were a lot of people who came to our organization and asked: “Can I come? Can I listen? Can I collect data?” They wanted to do ethnographic work. As organizers we didn’t like that, because it was like an outsider, a scholar, was coming to study us. My perception of academia has always been that: people just come into community spaces to study us. I felt that was unfair. It felt very violating. When I came to Syracuse, being in classrooms and reading some of the theories and data on immigration and racism, I was really frustrated. People already know this is happening. We know racism exists. We know how these policies are made because people in my community feel it with their skin. Their day-to-day life experiences change because of the policies. We don’t have to read the study or report to see what is happening on the ground. So, I did not understand that; other students were learning through the reports as if the ideas are so far away and it’s like, I'm right here. We’re right there. I felt that that distance, that inequality was unjust, and I had lot of frustrations with that. Who gets to claim that role of a scholar? Who gets to be the one who carries knowledge? Is it only the people who sit behind desks, writing reports to be read? What about people who carry it on their back, or through their physical labor? They know it through their life experiences.

In your presentation, you talked about your passion for activism. How do you combine that passion into an academic setting?

It’s when you ground your theories into practice. It’s not just the words or ideas about power that you are teaching. You actually have to put it into practice to challenge, to discuss. I’m at Harvard reading and thinking about resistance spaces within immigrant communities. For me, it’s important that I’m not only highlighting how these people are resisting in different ways and how their art embodies certain theories, but that I hold myself accountable to these theories. Not only am I learning with them in their work and their actions, but I’m also contributing to the cause. I show up. Not only am I understanding what is happening, but I’m doing things to change what I understand.

How did you decide to go on to graduate school?

I think my resistance was similar to how I saw academic space. And I still feel this way. There are many points in grad school, I think it happens every week, where I’m like: ‘why am I here?’ You’re talking with people about a lot of ideas and it makes me frustrated. How is us talking about this changing all the things that we’re critiquing? Grad school was that for me. I don’t want to just talk. I don’t want to just read. What change is that going to bring? That was my hesitancy.

It ultimately became an option. When I was trying to figure out what to do next, it was an option that was put forward to me by my mentors. It was also a financial thing for me. If you’re in a PhD program you’re sort of guaranteed funding for ‘x’ amount of years, kind of like a job contract. When I hesitantly applied and then was offered places by schools, I was shocked. When I visited the schools I decided to give it a try.

How do you think WGS prepared you for life after undergrad?

I want to be very clear on this point. Syracuse University has a very special WGS program. Syracuse teaches feminist theory in a very powerful way that is not everywhere. I think I realized that after I left. The kind of knowledge and the kind of way of thinking that professors are challenging the students to work with is not the norm, even in other WGS spaces. For me, that has been incredibly valuable. It's not just about a skill. It’s about seeing the world and having different ways of thinking. And you can’t take that away from anybody. Particularly in grad school, that has been very important for me to stand my ground and continue to believe in my ways of thinking when everyone is questioning my approach and my orientation.

In your presentation you talked about how there are many different types of academic and learning environments. What type of environment do you think is most useful or productive?

The type of classroom that I have been taught from here at WGS is creating a space where everyone learns from each other. That is upfront from day one in WGS. That has been very valuable for me. Often times when you go into WGS class, unless you’re in a lecture hall, you’re sitting in circles. The class is already set up in this circular motion. Everybody is looking at each other. There is nobody standing at the front of the room talking at you. That is very important to me, not only as a student, but as a scholar and a thinker. Knowledge happens multidirectional; there is no hierarchy of knowledge. Everybody has different experiences and they have collective knowledge from those experiences. Also, active listening is such an important trait, one I realized not a lot of people have. I think that’s important: when you are rushing to tell everyone what you think, you might miss an important insight they have. Knowledge is more powerful when it’s collective.

Do you have any advice for current WGS students?

Enjoy your learning environment. Enjoy your readings. If there is a topic or conversation that you latch onto and that sparks something in you, don’t let that pass. It means something. There must be some connection there that is making you feel a spark. Talk to the professors. They are very giving, generous, and caring. That is not always there. I think Syracuse has a core group of scholars who are more generous and who care about their students. So, take advantage of that. And read. Reading is important. It helps you see things differently. And act. If there is something that upsets you, strategize with people to see what you can do to change that.

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