Growing up in South Korea, Gloria Jiyoon Kim was often yelled at by teachers because she struggled to keep up with her wealthy classmates who, thanks to private tutors, had already grasped the material. 

“I learned to put the blame on myself for not being smart enough,” Kim said. “That pressure, as well as my limited resources and lack of guidance, made me question whether higher education was ever an option for me.”

Everything changed when Kim’s mother — despite not knowing English or having had the opportunity to consider college herself — stepped in to explore her daughter’s options. Using Google Translate, her mother discovered the California community college system, and so the family began making plans to emigrate to Southern California, with her father spearheading their efforts to learn English.

When she and her family arrived in the U.S., 18-year-old Kim did not know anyone else who had taken a similar path. But with her parents’ encouragement, she was able to enroll at Cerritos College in Norwalk.

“As a first-generation community college student, I faced many challenges, starting with the language barrier. But through the support of amazing mentors, I realized that commitment and effort could allow students like myself to achieve great things as members of the academic community,” Kim said. “This experience empowered me to pursue higher education to transform the experiences of other underrepresented students in coping with their academic struggles and pressures.”

Kim set her heart on transferring to UCLA after she visited campus as part of a Student Transfer Outreach and Mentor Program conference during her first year of community college — an experience that marked her first time at a university. Dazzled and more than a little intimidated by the beauty and scale of everything she saw, from the dining halls to the buildings and resources, Kim found her footing when she got involved with the UCLA Center for Community College Partnerships.  

The CCCP, a unit of UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program, works with community colleges to prepare students like Kim academically and socially to transfer to UCLA and other four-year institutions, with a particular focus on supporting first-generation students and those from low-income and historically underrepresented backgrounds.

“They helped me appreciate that I could start UCLA at a comfortable level for where I was as a student and to feel a sense of belonging even before I transferred,” said Kim. “Through the CCCP, I found community and learned that we, as transfer students, could uplift each other as we go. I was able to challenge myself to go beyond my wildest expectations because I learned that I wasn’t alone.”

Since transferring, Kim — who will graduate next week with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and in education and social transformation — has made it a point to pay her experience forward. In addition to participating as a student speaker at Bruin Day this year, she serves as a senior student ambassador for the UCLA RISE Center, which focuses on student mental health and well-being, as well as a peer advisor and office assistant for CCCP. 

“Coming into UCLA, I knew that if there was one thing I needed to do, it was to give back to the CCCP community, which taught me to embrace my first-generation and community college–transfer student identity,” she said. “Transfer students bring so many unique experiences to their academic journey. We took the path less traveled and arrived at the same destination with a more colorful narrative. What transfers bring to UCLA is vital and makes this institution a better place.”

Split screen photo featuring Kim during her first birthday celebration with her mother, Kyunghwa Kim, in Seoul, South Korea (left), and the pair together on the UCLA campus.
Courtesy of Gloria Jiyoon Kim
Kim during her first birthday celebration with her mother, Kyunghwa Kim, in Seoul, South Korea (left), and the pair together on the UCLA campus.

Kim also found a creative way to give back through active research and support roles with the fellows and scholars programs through UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Centers.

This included creating and running a series of projects as the lead research assistant in the TRUST Lab (Treatment and Research for the Underserved with Stress and Trauma) headed by assistant professor of psychology Lauren Ng. Kim’s honors thesis with the lab sought to identify factors that could increase Asian students’ engagement with mental health services, including whether the client and therapist were of the same racial or ethnic group. For her work and service, she has been honored with a UCLA/Keck Humanistic Inquiry Undergraduate Research Award, as well as the Dean’s Prize for Excellence in Research and Creativity, the UCLA EDI Student Leadership Award and the Chancellor's Service Award.

With graduation on the horizon, Kim has been accepted into a master’s program in education at Harvard University but is still weighing her options. Whatever her choice, she says that she will always have a strong Bruin base of support. 

“UCLA taught me the importance and power of community. I now think of this university not as its infrastructure, campus or location but as its people and their knowledge,” Kim said. “We are UCLA.”

Most of all, though, she is especially proud that her success is a testament to her family’s sacrifices and unwavering support.

“What made all the sleepless nights and challenges worth it was seeing my mom try on my cap with a big smile and tears of happiness. She never had these opportunities herself, but she made sure that I did,” Kim said. “My advice is to remember the people and the community that helped you get here and use all you’ve accumulated navigating this journey to make them proud and make a positive impact.”

Celebrating UCLA’s first-generation students