North Korea Freedom Scholarship Recipients: Where Are They Now?

The Bush Institute's Jeff Kim discusses how the North Korea Freedom Scholarship has impacted the lives of the recipients.

Shinhae works for a nonprofit organization in the United States and is a powerful advocate for North Koreans. An escapee who feared that her family back in North Korea would be imprisoned or punished if she spoke up, she was able to find her voice and come forward after years of living in fear and sharing her story anonymously.

She was one of the first recipients of the North Korea Freedom Scholarship program, established by the George W. Bush Institute and administered by the Communities Foundation of Texas. Designed to help North Korean escapees living in the United States build prosperous and productive lives through education, the 4-year-old program has so far awarded $118,500 in scholarship money to students.

Twelve new recipients have been selected for 2020 and together have been awarded $40,900 for vocational school, community college, university, and graduate school.

During a private meeting with the recipients in 2019, President Bush said, “This is one of my favorite programs at the Bush Center. The idea of welcoming people who have escaped tyranny is something very important to us…and should be important to the American people. And one way we can help is to take ambitious, smart young people and give them an opportunity to broaden their horizons.”

Scholarships by the numbers in four years:

  • 43 scholarship totaling $118,500
  • 25 recipients, including 19 repeat recipients and 6 new recipients in 2020
  • 3 master’s degrees and two bachelor’s degrees

The scholarship is accomplishing everything that it was set up to do, and then some. Some of the unanticipated benefits include bringing together a community of future leaders for North Korea; helping them find their voices and a platform to share their stories of ultimate courage; and giving them the hope to achieve their American dreams. Their new lives are a beacon of light for North Koreans, living in one of the darkest places on earth.

We have been privileged to be part of the recipient’s lives since the beginning of their journeys. Their stories are living proof that, even against difficult odds, dreams to succeed through education and building a prosperous life remain the same.

The dream has taken a different form for each student.

For one – who has been with us since the first year – the scholarship allowed her to attend school full time. Before becoming a recipient, she worked a full-time job and could only attend classes part time. This summer, she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in finance and will start her master’s in the fall.

Another, a man in Chicago who used to be homeless, attended his first year of community college in the fall of 2017, thanks to help from the scholarship and his community. Now he is a rising senior at a four-year university pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.

All the recipients have chosen different paths in life. But their amazing stories are true testaments to both their determination and the impact that a helping hand, such as the scholarship, can have.

I have been privileged to be part of the Bush Institute’s North Korean Freedom Scholarship since the beginning and to build relationships with a wonderful group of individuals. None of their many accomplishments would have been possible if it weren’t for their bravery in escaping North Korea and finding homes in America. Like many refugees and immigrants who came before them, they are becoming part of American society. And, one by one, they are making an impact in their new home.