When Joanne Kim first stepped off the plane in Chicago, her eyes were loose, her stomach felt empty, and she felt filled with an endless air of grogginess. Now, three years after her arrival from Seoul, South Korea, she’s adjusted to culture shock and has made a name for herself on Wheaton College’s campus as a well-loved Resident Assistant in an upper-class dorm, popular barista at Sam’s Café with an affinity for coffee-making, present and former member of campus groups Koinonea and Breakaway Ministries, and as an established writer in the English department.
“I feel like every one of us at Wheaton has something we’re passionate about,” Joanne says. “For me, that’s writing.”
Her passion for narrative storytelling is partly due to genetic inheritance—her father is an author who writes in a new genre called “faction,” (“basically historical fiction with more facts than fiction”), and her grandfather, David Cho, is an internationally-renowned missiologist with ties to Wheaton’s campus.
“My grandfather used to be a pastor and is very big on North Korean missions,” Joanne says. “He has a missionary center in South Korea, so as a kid I spent a lot of time going up there. He’s trilingual, and he loves the Lord. He really wanted me to come to Wheaton.”
Though it should seem like no surprise Joanne ended up at Wheaton College, as it’s also where her mother went to graduate school, Joanne wasn’t always planning to commit to the Harvard of evangelical universities.
“As I grew up, I kind of hoped God would call me to a secular college because I was in an international Christian community in high school,” Joanne says. “Wheaton was not the first school on my list, but I’ve learned to expect surprises in my life. Wheaton can offer you things you’d never expect, so plan to be surprised—just like Dan in Real Life.”
After “feeling a tug from God” to attend Wheaton, she arrived in fall 2011, and hasn’t looked back since. She now shares her enthusiasm, optimism, and faith with the girls she oversees in the dorms, and it bubbles over to the community around her through her honest and transparent stories about life, faith, and culture published through various English assignments and projects with Wheaton’s journalism certificate program.
“Some of my friends express themselves through art or photography, but I’m a huge believer in narratives, and how powerful they can be,” Joanne says.
She’s written on topics ranging from Boba tea sensations to Pastor Rick Warren to culture shock on websites ranging from Wheaton’s campus newspaper, the Record, to Millennial Influx, her personal Tumblr site, and her personal blog. Her most prized publication to date is an English composition she completed for her memoir writing class: “Wild and Precious.”
“Even though I have a passion for writing and English, for a long time, I didn’t really feel so confident in my classes,” Joanne says. “It was only through obedience and accepting this is what God wants me to do is how I’ve seen the fruits grow. So learning fruits really grow in hardships is the biggest, hardest lesson I’ve learned.”
Joanne is halfway done with her junior year at Wheaton,
and insists the highlight of her experience has been the campus community.
“One of the ways I’ve learned to overcome obstacles is to lean on people. I’ve been learning that a lot, because I’m not naturally a person who likes leaning on people, but it’s so important to lean on people and experience the value of community.”
Right now, Joanne’s dream is to be a writer, and she is considering applying to post-graduate MFA programs to pursue that dream. But, for now, she’s making the most of every day she has as an undergraduate student, and had a few words of advice and encouragement for college freshmen and individuals seeking to pursue their dreams:
“Go for it, and come as you are. Plan to be surprised.”
Listen to Joanne’s behind-the-scenes take on making milkshakes at Sam’s Cafe: