May is Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the ways in which the APIDA community contributes to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. This month, the Office of Research and Economic Development is spotlighting the work and thoughts of members of Nebraska’s APIDA research community to highlight how they strengthen and diversify our university.
Surin Kim is an assistant professor and extension specialist in entrepreneurship in the department of textiles, merchandising and fashion design. Her work is focused on developing, disseminating and evaluating programs focused on entrepreneurship development for youth, women, immigrants and underserved groups. She also teaches experiential learning courses on product development, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Since joining Nebraska in 2016, Kim and her team have received a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture focused on identifying the underpinnings of youth and young adult flight from rural communities and implementing an educational intervention that engages youth in STEAM and entrepreneurial learning. She’s also co-principal investigator on another USDA grant focused on youth civic engagement in rural Nebraska. In 2017, she and a colleague launched the “Crafting Culture in the Middle of Everywhere” workshop series and research project funded by the Pearle Francis Finigan Foundation, which is aimed at fostering cross-cultural exchange and social connections between immigrant communities and long-term Nebraska residents, with the goal of building business and entrepreneurial skills.
Prior to joining Nebraska, Kim was active in the private sector, working at a diverse range of businesses including Amazon, Korea Telecom and Sun Microsystems.
The following Q&A with Kim has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your research and extension work at the university, specifically the trajectory that focuses on immigrants and underserved communities.
I came to Lincoln in 2016, when I moved from the private sector to academia to focus on developing entrepreneurial education programs for underserved communities, ranging from rural youth to women to immigrants.
Although I am an immigrant myself, I realized that for a lot of immigrants in Lincoln, their experiences are different than mine. I came to the U.S. to pursue education and had a support system of classmates and colleagues; this was my career choice. That is clearly different than for a lot of immigrants whom I target through my educational programs – many are refugees, and the decision to come may not have been their choice. Some lack a support network and many follow the traditional roles where the male goes out to be the breadwinner, and the house chores are female responsibilities. Many females may not have access to communities and networks. For me, understanding that difference was the first step.
I talked about this with my colleague Claire Nicholas around the time when the Trump administration was banning travel to the U.S. from some Muslim countries. We wanted to do something to make connections and build bridges for those who are excluded from major support systems. Immigrants, especially women, often don’t benefit from the current entrepreneurial ecosystem. We wanted to build a program to support them and connect them to local resources.
We developed an extension program called “Handcrafted: Business and Community Building” (Note: also known as “Crafting Culture in the Middle of Everywhere”), which is focused on craft and textiles projects and business building. It’s based on a framework from research that shows that shared experiences build connections among people. We brought together local quilt maker communities and immigrants, mostly females familiar with textile making. We wanted to let them do collaborative work that is potentially viable in the market – they could sell and develop a business around it.
We tested the model with local partners from the Asian Community and Cultural Center, the International Quilt Museum, the Lincoln Modern Quilt Guild, the Nebraska Business Development Center, Nebraska Innovation Studio, The Quilted Science and others. We ran the pilot in 2018, and then developed it as a curriculum so others can replicate it. The Asian Community and Cultural Center is running some version of the curriculum, as is The Refinery, an eco-collective that launched a business incubator program to support immigrant women using our work. The output of the workshop series was also exhibited at the Nebraska History Museum to celebrate the history of enterprising women in Nebraska.
Tell me about your own experience immigrating to the United States from South Korea.
I came to the U.S. in 2013 to pursue my MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t originally plan to stay and immigrate to the U.S., but I saw that the U.S. has a big market in the entrepreneurship field. I wanted to stay in order to work in this field and advance my career.
All of my family members are still in Seoul. I try to go once per year or once every other year. That hasn’t been possible recently because of the pandemic. The concept that you can’t visit your family, and vice versa, is challenging. Situations like this show the concept of how you can be a foreigner in your home country.
How has your experience as an immigrant from South Korea informed your work?
When I first came to the U.S., I was in places like Philadelphia and Seattle, where in my career setting, it was common for there to be a lot of international people of lots of different races. I didn’t feel like I was reminded all the time that I’m Asian. When I came to Nebraska, you get reminded of that quite often, even though you’re not looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking, “I’m Asian.”
So I have empathy for people who are living here as an outsider. In the beginning of my time in the U.S., I didn’t have many thoughts about my identity. The main part of my identity was being Korean, Asian and cisgender. But as I lived here longer, I started to develop more of an identity. I realized I’m becoming more distant from my home country. When I go back and visit, I get surprised about different things because my cultural norms have changed over time. I feel like more of an outsider in both places. I don’t consider Nebraska as my home, and I don’t consider my home country as my home either. I’m in the middle and sort of a bridge.
Seeing things from this perspective, I think differently about how to build connections that are more natural. I want to go a step beyond talking about diversity by building a cohesive community where diversity is valued because it supports meaningful connections and a healthier ecosystem in society.