November 23, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Julie Kim
By Bill Brink
Eight thousand miles from home, a realization struck Julie Kim.
Spending a year as a Program and Research Coordinator at the Social Entrepreneurship for Sexual Health in Guangzhou, China, unlocked something for her. No more did she feel content to rely upon the universe to send chances her way.
“Being away for a year was a very formative experience for me because it was another experience where I learned the power of an individual,” said Kim, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2013 with a degree in International Relations and Politics and an additional major in Chinese. “I learned that if you want to do something, you can likely do it. Before, I always said, I have to join something, I have to wait until someone gives me the opportunity. I think in China, I realized, you can actually make your opportunities happen.”
Kim transported this newfound power home. For six years, the Queens native has applied herself to New York City politics and civic engagement, including the census, COVID-19 tracking and tracing, and immigrant affairs. She currently works for the NYC Civic Engagement Commission as an advisor on language access and voter participation at polling sites.
“It really showed me the power of local,” Kim said of her work in New York City. “It showed me the power of community building and that I didn’t actually have to go so far, I actually could start right in my own community. I could actually utilize the knowledge that I had innately, just from growing up there, to bring about these programs and highlight voices that traditionally don’t get heard. That was really awesome.”
In a way, Kim’s hometown nudged her toward Carnegie Mellon. She attended Townsend Harris High School in the heart of Queens, which emphasized the humanities, but she had an interest in science as well. Studying both at CMU, through the now-defunct Science and Humanities Scholars program, enticed her, and in addition to International Relations and Politics, she began the pre-med track before pivoting.
“I was doing horribly in all my science classes and then I had the opportunity to do a study-abroad program that summer after freshman year in Shanghai, which jump-started me learning Mandarin,” Kim said. “I really loved it, and decided to keep going in that direction. ... It was my first real foray into being abroad. It just really got me a lot more interested in continuing to study international relations back then.”
Interest in foreign affairs and a desire to experience the world during college led Kim to the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program. Interning for the Department of Education introduced Kim to life at a federal agency -- not her favorite -- but at the time, CMU students lived and studied at Georgetown University, a dynamic she liked.
“I did enjoy getting to know the culture of Georgetown and people who are so embedded into politics, which was different than CMU,” she said. “A lot of my friends were not studying humanities or politics or international relations. A lot of them were studying computer science or engineering.”
Upon graduating in 2013, Kim entered a job market still feeling the effects of the recession. She interned for the International Rescue Committee in New York City, to stay busy, before earning a semester-long fellowship in Washington, DC through the Running Start program, a program that educates young women about leadership running for office.
“That was a really interesting experience because it gave me a lot more confidence,” Kim said. “To be in spaces that I felt like weren’t really for me, just seeing that all you have to do is show up sometimes.”
When Kim returned to New York after the year in China, she joined the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and worked on an initiative called IDNYC. By providing people with an alternative to a driver’s license, regardless of citizenship status, IDNYC allowed people to enter schools and government buildings and to avail themselves of services and programs the city offered.
Next, she became the executive director of the Women’s Caucus of the New York City Council.
“Just because a law gets passed doesn’t mean it’s going to be implemented,” Kim said. “The journey that it takes for all the cajoling to get legislation passed, getting budget, I realized I really enjoyed implementing programs and seeing the direct effect they had on communities and people.”
Then it was back to the mayor’s office, this time as the Queens Borough Lead of the city’s 2020 census initiative. New York spent $40 million to ensure that the census properly counted its citizens, and amid the pandemic it was money well spent: New York City’s census completion rate was one of the few that rose last year. Kim maintained her networks and connections with community organizations when she transitioned to pandemic response for the NYC Test and Trace Corps, an experience that burned her out so much, she quit in June. She joined the NYC Civic Engagement Commission last month.
“It works on participatory budgeting, it works on poll site language access, and border participation,” she said. “I basically think through ways that limited English-proficient speakers in New York City can make sure to vote, know that they can vote, know how to vote, know what’s going on in terms of local elections.”
At home and abroad, Kim discovered her preferred arena and the mindset needed to succeed in it. She credited Carnegie Mellon and the Institute for Politics and Strategy with providing her a “grounded place” to explore the world.
“We got a lot of personalized help, and anything we wanted to try, we could,” she said. “ … I was grateful to have been able to do all the different study-abroad programs, and going to Washington, DC and being able to satisfy my curiosity while I was there.”