North Korean refugee inspired by Mercer On Mission team graduates from University

A student in a graduation gap and gown faces a building on campus.
Iris stands in front of the Administration Building on the Macon campus. Photo by Matthew Smith

Five years ago, a North Korean refugee met a team of Mercerians in South Korea and was inspired by their commitment to change the world. On May 15, she will graduate from Mercer University with a bachelor’s degree in global health studies and a plan for a bright future helping others. 

Iris lived with her parents in North Korea until 2009, when she fled the country at age 17 with her younger cousin. They traveled through China and Laos and eventually arrived in South Korea. The Den is withholding Iris’ last name and photos of her face for her safety.

“My cousin’s mother, who is my aunt, already escaped North Korea, and she lived in South Korea,” Iris said. “She wanted to bring her daughter to escape North Korea, so at that time, I joined with my cousin to go to South Korea.” 

Iris and her cousin enrolled in Drim School, an alternative school 60 miles south of Seoul for North Korean refugees and their children, to complete their high school education. After earning her diploma, Iris enrolled in nursing school in 2013 and graduated in 2017.

One year later, she was volunteering at Drim School when she met the Mercer On Mission team. Mercer biomedical engineering professor Dr. Sinjae Hyun initiated the South Korea program in 2015, and every summer, a Mercer team spends time with children at Drim School.

“I was impressed by the dedication of the Mercer students and professors who gave up their four-week summer time to teach English and engineering technologies to Drim School students. I am so grateful for the work the team does. They are making a real difference in the world,” Iris said.

Iris dreamed of furthering her education in the United States, and her encounter with the Mercerians set into motion a path that would lead her to America with Mercer’s sponsorship. After obtaining her student visa, she arrived in the United States in January 2019 and began classes at Mercer’s English Language Institute on the Atlanta campus. After completing the program, she came to the Macon campus to major in global health studies.

“I’m a full scholarship student. If they didn’t offer that, I couldn’t go here and study. I was really thankful Mercer did that for me,” she said. 

At Mercer, Iris had to adjust to a new way of living and thinking. She said studying college subjects in English was a challenge. In addition, she was used to an education system where personal opinion was heavily restricted.

“The American classroom environment fosters programs serving creative and critical thinking skills,” she said. 

But Iris persevered by devoting many hours daily to her assignments and studying. She didn’t have a lot of time for extracurricular activities, but she got involved in Mercer’s Korean Undergraduate Student Association, which has more than 50 members. Through that group, she forged friendships and a network of support. The Mercer faculty also showed her great kindness and understanding, she said. 

In summer 2022, she had the opportunity to return to South Korea and Drim School as a Mercer On Mission participant, one of her favorite experiences during her time at the University. Four years prior, she had witnessed the Mercerians’ passion from the outside, and it was meaningful for her to be a part of that team and its mission during this trip.

Iris doesn’t talk a lot about leaving North Korea or her family for their safety, but she did share some of her thoughts during a well-attended Mercer program earlier this semester. She said she discussed the North Korean school system and the dangerous escape route she took. 

“I met Iris over four years ago, which is around the time she came to the U.S.,” said Dr. Chinekwu Obidoa, associate professor of global health studies and Africana studies. “During this time, she has not only navigated a new culture, language and educational system, but also the legacies of some of the harrowing experiences of her life. Despite the challenge, Iris has grown personally and professionally. I am excited for the person she has become, and I know that her experiences at Mercer have served to prepare her for an impactful and meaningful vocation and career.”

Iris originally studied nursing because she wanted to be able to care for a family member with a disability. With a global health studies degree, she has broadened the scope and possibilities for her future. 

“Over time, my passion grew, and I realized the importance of obtaining a global health degree to aid the suffering in North Korea,” Iris said. “A multidimensional intervention is needed to address the various factors impacting their health outcomes. Global health offers the holistic approach to health, taking into consideration not only medical and scientific factors but also social, economic, cultural and environmental factors.”

Next, Iris hopes to obtain a work visa and find a job where she can continue to expand upon her knowledge and skills. She plans to eventually take the U.S. nursing licensure exam, and she hopes to one day work with Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian medical care. 

“Iris volunteered at Drim School, where she observed the Mercer University students’ vision to change the world,” Dr. Hyun said. “She was impressed by their dedication and passion, and she was inspired by their commitment to making a difference. She came to Mercer to make the world a better place, and I believe that she learned and decided to do that.”


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