Katie Paek

Katie Paek
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Kyung-mi “Katie” Paek `24 was surprised to hear she had been chosen for the 2024 Scarlet & Black Senior Issue.

“I don’t do anything … I just study,” she said. “And I’m always inside.”

Paek’s self-description, however, belies the list of writing, research and art she has contributed to the College community over her years at Grinnell. The English major is also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow, writing mentor, Sequence media head and multiple-time winner of awards in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and critical essay-writing.

Paek was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to San Diego, Cal. in third grade. She said her identities of being ethnically Korean and also Asian-American have been what she tries to “hang on” to in her pursuits, both within and beyond the classroom. In her second year, she was an Asian-American Association cabinet member, and last year, she published a zine with the Grinnell Press called “This Clover Is My Clover, This Air My Air,” a collection of poetry, prose and comics that dealt with themes of diasporic identity and what home and belonging meant.

“I didn’t anticipate I would do this when I first came to Grinnell,” said Paek. “I was interested in writing, but I don’t think I really felt confident in myself as a writer creatively.”

Evan Hein

Paek described her high school as very focused on the sciences and her younger self as “quiet” and “inactive.” She said a comment from a teacher about her accent gave her a fear of participating in classes for many years. According to her, she decided to attend Grinnell because she wanted to be pushed in terms of engaging in scholarly conversation.

Paek said the small, discussion-based classes forced her to find confidence in her voice and engage with her identity in the written form. “Anytime I bring up how I was in high school, professors and friends would say they’d never have guessed and that it was hard to imagine it.”

Paek said she had been initially interested in teaching. She has worked as a writing mentor for three years and is certified for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). She ended up earning the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship in 2022, a program that aims to increase minority representation in research, where she said she had the opportunity to engage with her identity through her own interests — food, class and the ocean.

“Food is the primary way I connect with my culture,” she explained. “It’s a huge way my mom expressed her affection for us.”

“I’m from San Diego. It’s pretty self-explanatory that there is comfort with water,” she added. “But … there is also a stark class divide, like who gets to access the ocean. And it’s also a place where we had to reckon with our sense of belonging as diaspora — people speaking in English all around us and eating hot dogs, as we’re having Korean barbecue.”

For her Mellon Mays project, Paek went on to complete an investigation on food and labor as portrayed by Jane Austen’s writing, and produced a lyric essay that juxtaposed Austen’s writing with her own interpretations of the two themes. Although her career interests have since diverged from professorship, she said she valued the sustained community of peers and mentors for their support.

Now, Paek is looking at publishing jobs, particularly in educational publishing. It is a profession she is not unfamiliar with, having worked at the Sequence Magazine for three years, first as a contributor, and then as media head. 

“My coworker said [Sequence] was like my baby,” she laughed, adding that it had been a very rewarding experience to work with artists and curate their works in a way that could best show off their talents.

Sequence has been a really warm way for me to engage with the Grinnell community, especially because I feel like our class year has been particularly affected by COVID.

— Katie Paek `24

“Sequence has been a really warm way for me to engage with the Grinnell community, especially because I feel like our class year has been particularly affected by COVID,” she said. “It’s been really nice to look back on previous editions. It’s a fascinating way to have access to institutional memory and to be a part of it as I graduate.”

For Paek, print has power. “I can just post my pieces on Instagram, but that’s different from seeing it as part of a whole,” she said. “These submissions work in conjunction with each other -— print provides that kind of collaboration.”

Outside the literary arts, Paek studied off campus with Grinnell-in-London where she learned more about the city’s rich history of labor unions and engaged critically with concepts of ethnic nationalism relevant to her Korean identity. 

I’ll miss the intensity, the desire to learn and the relationships I’ve created here.

— Katie Paek `24

Paek also lived in Food House for three semesters where she fully embraced the sense of community she found in her cooking and eating with fellow students whom she called her “found family.”

“I’ll miss the intensity, the desire to learn and the relationships I’ve created here,” said Paek, adding that something unique about Grinnell had been how easy it was to form relationships — not just with students, but also with professors and advising staff who “clearly cared.”

Now, Paek draws light-hearted comics on her iPad, looks to comic artist Sam Nakahira `19 and food and culture writer Soleil Ho `09 for inspiration and is simply “trying to finish the rest of my time in Grinnell in a way that feels right.” 

“I stayed in town the summer before my third year and have a fondness for it — the water tower, the Strand, the wildflowers at Uhlenhopp Arboretum,” said Paek. 

“I’ll miss the night sky and clear stars. I’ll be nostalgic when I leave.”

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