‘Harmonious’ alignment: Ph.D. student Katie Kim selected for national Minority Fellowship Program
Katie Kim’s selection as a doctoral fellow for the Council on Social Work Education’s Minority Fellowship Program is another step in her journey – to the United States, to discovering social work and to finding her niche in researching the impacts of adverse childhood experiences.
Kim, a second-year doctoral student at the VCU School of Social Work, was among a group of Ph.D. students selected nationally for 2023-24 by CSWE, the accrediting organization for social work education in the U.S.
“Honestly, when I heard the news, it took my breath away for a moment,” she says. “I felt a strong, quiet thankfulness wash over me. It seemed like the community I’m a part of was telling me, ‘We notice your efforts, and we support where you’re headed.’ “
Kim’s research is concentrated on understanding the complex role that cultural, social and individual-level factors play in shaping cognitive responses to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) through a developmental lens. Her primary focus is ACEs that stem from parental alcohol misuse.
“My particular interest lies in examining how these early life experiences influence alcohol-related health outcomes in later stages of life, with the ultimate goal being the development of culturally competent interventions that promote health equity and enhance the quality of mental and behavioral health treatments,” she says. “I am particularly captivated by the potential of a trauma-informed approach that integrates social learning and developmental perspectives, facilitating a deeper understanding of mental and behavioral concerns prevalent in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities.”
The Minority Fellowship Program supports research to improve health disparities around mental health and substance use, which Kim describes as “harmoniously” aligning with her own interests.
“Joining the MFP will significantly bolster my career path by offering valuable mentorship and networking opportunities with experts and scholars in the field,” she says. “It will facilitate collaborative research, fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural competencies in behavioral health, trauma and substance use disorder interventions.
“The financial support from the award will not only relieve the burden of educational debt but also enhance my capacity to focus on vital research initiatives aimed at promoting health equity. The platform will enable me to contribute meaningfully to the national discourse on mental and behavioral health in BIPOC communities, advancing social justice through informed research and interventions.”
Faculty collaboration and support
Kim credits mentorship from faculty members Denise Burnette, Ph.D.; Karen Chartier, Ph.D.; and Mer Francis, Ph.D. Kim has worked on a research team with Chartier, an associate professor, and Francis, an assistant professor, and the trio have made three presentations together in 2023.
“Though our specific research areas have nuances, they intersect substantially under the theme of substance abuse, which forms a common ground for rigorous academic exploration,” Kim says. “Both Dr. Chartier and Dr. Francis have brought distinct strengths to our collaborative efforts; Dr. Chartier guided me in developing a structured approach to research, while Dr. Francis facilitated enriching discussions that honed my critical thinking and helped in shaping my research questions.”
Kim also acknowledged Drs. Francis and Burnette, the Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work and previously the doctoral program director, for their academic and personal support; and fellow Ph.D. student Seon Kim, a mentor, and the cohort of second-year doctoral students that includes Ya-Li Yang, Victoria Cashio, Reem Shawkat and Jeff Ciak.
“Throughout my Ph.D. journey, there have been moments when the high-stress environment impacted my mental well-being, leading to feelings of being cornered and emotionally drained,” Katie Kim admits. “During such times, Dr. Burnette and Dr. Francis stood by me, offering empathy and encouragement, which has been a pillar of support for me to get back on track.
“As I prepared for the CSWE MFP application, their nurturing and guidance were invaluable. They not only facilitated learning but also connected me to opportunities that have been greatly beneficial. I am incredibly thankful for this mentorship connection, which has been both academically enriching and personally supportive.”
Dr. Francis notes the highly competitive nature of an award like the Minority Fellowship Program and the value of Katie Kim’s contributions as a researcher.
“This is a major accomplishment for Katie and a wonderful recognition of her exceptional work,” Dr. Francis says. “She has consistently brought new ideas to our research teams about how to explore the impact of trauma, resilience and social supports on substance use outcomes in the context of race, ethnicity and gender.
“Katie’s research focus, on how our sociocultural backgrounds shape how we experience and process trauma and how that in turn relates to substance use, is ultimately aimed at developing culturally competent trauma interventions for people with substance use problems. This is such an important gap in our clinical knowledge, and I’m excited to see the innovation that Katie brings to the field both here at VCU and in her future work.”
‘Straight to the heart of social work’
Kim says she feels a kinship with those experiencing adversity, based on her own life obstacles – whether learning English after moving to the U.S. from South Korea at age 17, learning to manage her finances and coming to understand new social rules.
“I lived through all of that,” she says. “And through living it, I felt a kinship with others who faced similar mountains to climb. Every new word I learned, every different custom I navigated – it wasn’t just a personal journey, it was me weaving myself into a new community.
“I know what it’s like to be a new person, to be different, to rebuild from square one. It’s this firsthand experience that fuels my deep-seated empathy for others on the margins, and my drive to stand beside them, working to lift them up, just as I was lifted.”
Kim says she came to realize she was not alone in her struggles, and that adversity could become a force for change.
“This realization guided me straight to the heart of social work, a field deeply aligned with my values of treating every person with respect and valuing the connections we forge with one another,” she says. “These aren’t just principles to me; they are lived experiences, the very fabric of social work ethics that echo in my own story.”
Kim earned a Bachelor of Social Work from George Mason University and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan. She had a deeply meaningful M.S.W. internship at a Veterans Administration Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Michigan, witnessing the “profound trauma that many individuals carried with them, ranging from childhood hardships to the distress of warfare” – and strengthening her resolve.
After graduating from Michigan, she was a fellow with the Yale Stress Center in the Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine. She engaged in interdisciplinary research focused on exploring the link between childhood trauma and its long-lasting effects on adults, including substance abuse and behavioral problems, and also examining the influence of gender and cultural differences.
Ending the cycle of adversity
With her current research, Kim describes the impacts of parental alcohol abuse as a “dark cloud encompassing neglect, domestic violence, and abuse. Picture a child trying to find their way in a world overshadowed by these harsh realities,” she says. “It is the deep and often invisible scars left by these experiences that I am determined to bring to light and address.”
The unresolved trauma of ACEs perpetuates a cycle of adversity, she says. To end the cycle, she is exploring how adversity shapes a belief system, a complex connection of personal, societal and cultural narratives. “By untangling the complex web of one’s beliefs, which can have a significant impact on emotional responses and behavioral patterns in adulthood, often leading to chronic mental health problems, my research aims to shed light on how early adversities affect trauma,” Kim says.
“As I walk this road, I hold tight to the belief that the toughest times in our lives aren’t just obstacles; they’re opportunities,” she continues. “They’re chances for us, and for our communities, to grow stronger, to build ourselves anew. Every step I take is guided by a desire to truly understand the deep, intricate stories that make us who we are.
“And beyond understanding, to forge connections rooted in kindness, in a willingness to step into another’s shoes, and in the unwavering belief that grounded research can light the way. This isn’t just a path of growth for me; it’s a path I envision for every one for us, learning to transform hurdles into stepping stones, together.”