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Grace Kwon '24

“Make the Most” Mindset Leads Kwon ’24 to Her Homeland

When Grace Kwon ’24 received a phone call on April 2, 2022, informing her she had been accepted into the ILR School, she couldn’t help but think it was a belated April Fool’s prank.

Kwon’s educational background was unconventional. She received her GED diploma before earning an associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College. She viewed acceptance to Cornell as a “longshot,” and when Ian Schachner, senior associate director of admissions, called her with the good news, she couldn’t believe it was true.

“Cornell’s online application portal hadn’t been updated, so there was no way to verify that I was in and I don’t know, I just thought he might be wrong,” Kwon said. “I visited Cornell the next week and walked into his office and said, ‘I need to confirm this. I need you to double-check and make sure this is right.’ I was just in total disbelief.”

Kwon at McPherson Award
Kevin Harris with Grace at the 2024 McPherson Honors.

Looking at what Kwon has accomplished in her two years at ILR – she’s been awarded a Fulbright, was named a Merrill Scholar, won a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence and was a recipient of the Virginia Freeman Memorial Prize – it’s clear that her acceptance was no prank.

Kwon was born in Korea and her family immigrated to Virginia when she was two years old. One of the reasons they chose to leave Korea was to provide better opportunities for her older brother, Hamin, now age 24. He is on the autism spectrum and also has an intellectual disability and a rare epilepsy disorder.

Grace Kwon '24 with her family at graduation.
Grace Kwon with her family, including her brother Hamin, at ILR's graduation ceremony. 

Kwon’s Korean background and her brother’s disability inspired the topic of her Fulbright project, “Sustainable Empowerment through Employment for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.” Beginning in late August, Kwon will spend 10 months in Korea – where she still has an extensive family – researching competitive integrated employment. It’s an approach many countries have implemented to employ workers with disabilities in the same environment and at the same pay as other workers.

“The purpose is to fully include people of all backgrounds and abilities, and I thought it would be really interesting to do the research in Korea, because that country is still working on establishing its disability employment policy and initiatives,” Kwon said. “There is still a real ‘collectivist’ nature to the Korean culture, so what I want to look at is if there is an opportunity for further inclusion of disabled people in Korean society.”

Kwon took several disability courses with Matthew Saleh and Allison Weiner Heinemann. She also spent a semester working as a research assistant at the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, where she examined the accommodation policies of various federal agencies.

“I think working at the institute is one of my favorite experiences because it was my first time getting hands-on experience with disability policy research,” Kwon said. “I was able to work with these experts who have so much knowledge in the field and were so encouraging of me. They told me, ‘We don't see you as like a student research assistant. So, tell us any opinions or any suggestions or any comments that you have.’

“So, I felt like they really valued my opinions and my thoughts and really helped me develop. That was super valuable.”

Kwon’s upcoming trip to Korea won’t be the first time she’s traveled abroad to do research. She participated in the Vietnam Engaged Learning Program as a student in 2023 and served as a program assistant in 2024. Kwon also participated in the India Global Engaged Learning Program in the summer of 2023.

While in Vietnam, she engaged with the trade and labor union department at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Grace Kwon at Blue Scope, a steel manufacturing factory, in Vietnam.
Grace with her fellow students visiting Blue Scope, a steel manufacturing factory, in Vietnam. 

“We worked with the Vietnamese students to engage cross-culturally and also learn about labor relations from the Vietnamese perspective,” Kwon said. “I think that was really valuable because at ILR, we often tend to focus on the U.S. labor relations system, or it's a broad overview of other countries. So, we went on field visits, and we visited unions, and it was a very impactful experience to see the details.”

In India, Kwon worked with the Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement under the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, conducting a research study to gauge the effectiveness of a pilot program run the previous year. It involved bringing together college and graduate students in the Mysore area and conducting workshops to promote civic engagement among the local youth.

Kwon in India
Grace (right) conducting interviews for her research in India with her assistant mentor Vijai Koladi Mutheri.

In addition to her time at the Yang-Tan Insitute and with ILR International Programs, Kwon also served as the Vice President of the ILR Global Affairs Club and earned the ILR Global Scholar recognition. She also held leadership positions with the Asian Pacific Americans for Action organization and the Pi Lambda Society, Cornell’s professional society for students pursuing government and policy careers.

“I think the beauty of being a transfer is that you don't take things for granted, and you reach for every opportunity possible,” Kwon said. “I think being a transfer, combined with the fact that I didn't really have that traditional high school experience, meant that I really just wanted to make the most out of my time here. I had the mindset, ‘just try, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but at least I tried.’”

“I also think I was fortunate to meet a lot of really wonderful staff, professors and administrators that introduced me to a lot of opportunities.

'From Donna Ramil to Brigid Beachler to Professor Saleh and Professor Bruyère, so many people recommended these opportunities, and I just applied to everything and saw what happened.”

Kwon is carrying that “see what happens” attitude into the future as well, leaving her post-Fulbright plans open-ended. She assumes she will return to the United States and either begin working in government, focusing on disability employment or going to graduate school.

“For me, in terms of the world of work, I take so much from my family,” Kwon said.

Grace Kwon '24

Having immigrant parents who faced language barriers and questionable work practices, as well as a brother who has had limited employment opportunities, Kwon feels frustrated by the wasted potential.

“I think learning about the kind of injustices that so many workers face has made me more passionate about learning about these types of protections and what rights people have,” Kwon said. “I want to learn and figure out how people with disabilities can be integrated into the greater society and into the workforce and what inclusivity can look like on a greater level.”

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