Dream fulfilled


There’s an old Korean saying, according to June Kim, that dictates the duties of a good wife: “The lion comes back to the cave when it hits 40. Until then, just sit and wait.” In other words, let the man sow his wild oats while you sit patiently. But for this successful doctor, waiting has never come naturally.

“I was never a traditional Korean woman,” Kim said. “I always dreamt as a child of being a scientist or a laboratory researcher, something like that. That was something girls were not expected to do.”

Kim is a radiation oncologist at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood and the CyberKnife Radiosurgery Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, both part of HealthEast Cancer Care.

A petite woman in her late 50s, Kim possesses a reserved but warm intelligence. She speaks with the deliberateness of someone who carefully considers her words. But sit long enough with her, and one begins to understand the steely willpower and formidable strength that lies underneath that reserve.

Free to follow her dream

As a young wife, Kim moved from Korea to the U.S. in 1975 with her husband. Initially, she planned to get a graduate degree and eventually move back to Korea to teach. However, five years after her immigration, she and her husband separated. That’s when everything changed.

She was 31 and living in New Jersey; she was cut off from her family in Korea, who thought that her divorce was a “disgrace”; she was a single mother of two young children; and, she barely spoke English. But rather than allowing herself to be defeated, Kim saw this as an opportunity to pursue her childhood dream.

“When my marriage did not last, I could no longer follow Korean tradition,” she said. “I liberated myself.”

She decided to go back to school.

But the path was not easy. Intending to enter the pre-med program at William Paterson University, Kim found out on the day of registration for classes that, although she had completed undergraduate studies in Korea, only three of her credits could transfer to the U.S.

“Guess which credits they accepted?” she laughed. “English! It was so funny. I couldn’t really speak, and my accent was so heavy. I couldn’t write a proper paragraph.”

Battling resistance

Even though she was still hurting from her separation and admittedly bitter, once again Kim decided to view this as an opportunity to start over. She slogged her way through her required coursework, which included one year of English as a Second Language. But when she tried to declare pre-med as her major, she encountered resistance from her faculty advisor.

“You know, we Koreans were supposed to be poor, we were supposed to have grocery [stores],” Kim said, “and my advisor sat there and told me all the reasons why I shouldn’t get into pre-med instead of helping me.”

He told her that it would be hard to get into medical school even for an American kid who was a top student, so she shouldn’t even bother. He also warned her that med school would be very expensive. His attitude infuriated her.

“I said, ‘If I thought I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it. But, I can do it.’ Basically, I silenced him.” Kim went on to graduate summa cum laude in pre-med. During this entire time, she was a single mother. And although her ex-husband was able to support her with a nanny, she said, “there’s still a lot of things Mom has to do.”

“There were countless nights I never went to bed,” Kim said. “I stayed up all night because I had to cook and feed the children, bathe them, put them to bed and then start to study.”

What kept her going during that time of her life? “I knew it was my chance to live. For the first time in my life, I was going to do what I always wanted to do. And, no one could stop it.”

Kim went on to attend medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and eventually chose oncology as her specialty.

“Medical school was never work for me,” she said. “I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

After medical school, Kim completed her internship in Norfolk, Va. According to her, Virginia was “too hot,” so after her son finished high school, she moved to the temperate Midwest, working at Gunderson Clinic in LaCrosse, Wis., before relocating to the Twin Cities.

Second chances

She said that American young people take the opportunities that they have for granted. But, since she grew up in a culture that expected women to get married and stay at home, she viewed medical school as a second chance, as a gift. By following her dream, she was also able to achieve inner peace about how her marriage ended, or as she puts it, she was “able to forgive everybody. I was able to compensate for my failure.”

Having been given a second chance, Kim has learned to value her life and what she has achieved. Now that she is five and a half years away from retirement and can look back on a successful career, Kim’s focus has shifted. Besides continuing to do her own work, she wants to help others achieve their goals, as well. What advice would she give to young women facing personal or professional challenges today?

“Be patient. Don’t get into the daily, small stuff. Set the goal.”

Her eyes twinkle, perhaps remembering the faces of everyone who told her she would never make it as a woman, an immigrant, a doctor, or a mother.

“Ask what your competitor cannot do, then do it. Look at whoever challenges you or gives you trouble, and use that as your teacher.”

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