Chun Shin-ae (’64, English Literature) was at the center of a historical moment when she became the highest-ranking Korean American appointee in the history of the United States.
Chun was appointed the 15th director of the Women’s Bureau in 2001. Chun is preparing for a transition in her life to become a public speaker to aspiring members of the younger generation.
Chun remembers her college life as being “plain.” With an ill mother and sister in the hospital, it was hard for her to enjoy her life or participate in extracurricular activities.
“I had to look after them, study, and try to enjoy myself at the same time,” said Chun. She said she only chose an English major to get married to a “good and wealthy husband.”
After graduation, Chun met the man who would become her husband and biggest fan. However, the dream of marrying her fiancee and living a happy life in Korea soon faded away as her mother opposed their marriage. She and her husband had the same last name, which made them distant relatives, according to Korean tradition.
“It was a lovers’ runaway. That’s how we immigrated to the U.S.,” said Chun. It took her nearly 11 years to find an interest and settle comfortably into the new lifeshe found in the land of opportunities. For the first eight years, she was the perfect traditional Korean wife and a mother who gave birth to two sons and devoted time and money to raise them. When Chun children grew up, she took her husband’s advice to study at Northwestern University.
“It was something I could have never imagined at that time, at my generation. But I took the challenge and began my adventure,” said Chun. Getting a Master’s degree in social policy was one thing but working was another leap.
“At that time, women who worked were thought to have ‘bad fate’ or in a bad situation due to poverty. But I started working anyways,” said Chun.
She started her career rather plainly by working as a consultant at Illinois. And as soon as she began to work, she realized working was fun and that she loved every inch of it.
Chun said, “I never felt tired of working. I was just so excited.”
But despite her high enthusiasm and operational efficiency, Chun says she faced her first hardship when her boss continuously stressed her out at work. She remembers that period as the most harsh and merciless years of her life. With continuing trouble and conflicts, she even thought of quitting the job, but giving up was not on her list of things-to-do.
“I was confident of myself, and I was never let down because of anything.
And I loved the job. That attitude led me to overcome any problems I encountered during my career, such as racism or discrimination. I never internalized them and they never slowed me down.”
“I decided to hang on for at least three years. I did. And it paid off. I was offered a better position and a better job,” said Chun.
Behind Chun’s success, she said, was her mother-the very person she had run away from.
Touching and looking at the gold ring together with her wedding ring on her fourth finger, Chun said, “Every time I wanted new clothes, I would ask my mother to give me money. She did, she never let me feel penniless. But later on when she passed away, I realized she sold all her jewelry for her daughter’s needs for clothes and luxury, and only the gold ring remained.”
Chun added that her mother’s dedication and willingness to send all her children to receive a higher education, something highly unusualy at that time, made her try harder, and work patiently whenever she encountered hardships.
Chun said despite her such success, she tries to stay “gentle,” and added softness is key to success.
“Softness does not include lowering oneself or having no confidence. It means to be humble yet have high self-esteem. Attitude is what really matters.”
Chun also emphasizes the importance of reading the newspaper. She said newspapers allow one to stay in touch with what is going on in the world, and being prepared with knowledge of what is going on gives more opportunity to start a career.
“Reading the newspaper is a preparatory step. And as I always say, opportunity comes to those who are prepared,” says Chun. But she adds that, cliche as it might sound, doing what one loves to do is the most important.
She said, “I was confident of myself, and I was never let down because of anything. And I loved the job. That attitude led me to overcome any problems I encountered during my career, such as racism or discrimination. I never internalized them and they never slowed me down.”