How I Became President of Columbia College Chicago (Dr. Kwang Wu Kim’s Story)

WELCOME TO SEASON 2 OF LEARN HOW TO WALK! I have some really cool people lined up to interview, and I can’t wait to share with you all some amazing stories of hope, and courage. The theme for this current season is “Leadership” and learning how to overcome the adversity that we face and take on the role of leading others towards a better and healthier mental lifestyle.

The first person I interviewed for this season is the CEO and President of Columbia College Chicago, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim. Dr. Kim is probably one of the most caring and sincere CEO’s I’ve ever met in my entire life. His story is unique, and it outlines how he overcame obstacles in life and how he went on to lead an entire student body in downtown Chicago. It was truly a privilege to be able to interview him and listen to his story. Unfortunately, I was unable to snap a photo of the two of us, but I promise you the story is REAL and it’s guaranteed to inspire.


Dr. Kwang Wu Kim Interview

Leland: Tell me a little bit about your childhood, I know that you are a native Chicagoan, what was life like?

Dr. Kim: I am, I was born here and I was the first child born in this country. Both my parents had come over from Korea as college students. I was always a top student in school and it was always pretty easy for me so I fit fairly easy into that immigrant narrative of a top student. I really wanted to become a doctor, that’s how I was always thought of, and it’s eventually how I began to think about myself. In high school, I was one of the top math and science students. Yet I always found myself really interested in performing arts such as music, and theatre, and dance. The way that all these things were incorporated into my life was the idea that these were all hobbies. I actually ended up going to college as a pre-med student. It wasn’t really until I got to college that I realized that this narrative of becoming a doctor wasn’t working for me, and I realized that’s not what I wanted to do. I realized that I was going to have to break free from my family’s narrative of me to write my own. So needless to say college was turbulent for me, and I actually ended up changing majors at least 8 or 9 times. I also ended up taking a year off and went to Korea to try and better understand my cultural heritage, and I was still looking for what I wanted to do. I kind of knew all along that what I really wanted to pursue was music, but I just didn’t think that it was an option for me and that was my main struggle. In the end, that’s what I did, but there was a great deal of disruption within my family as a result. The son who had always sort of been “perfect” and predictable had suddenly gone off in this completely different direction, and it was very hard for my parents. For me what is so important about that is, I say the same things now when I speak to parents of potential students of Columbia who are a little bit worried about their children pursuing a career that seems impossible, and is. Out of a practical path. My basic feeling is that people are going to end up where they need to be one way or the other. So if they have the support of their families they can start it sooner, or later, either way, they are going to end up pursuing it anyway even though it may be a lot harder and cause a lot more commotion.

Leland: I know you grew up a very prestigious student, so what was your idea of a dream career when you were younger?

Dr. Kim: I wanted to be a doctor, and go to medical school. In fact, I declared myself pre-med when I applied for college, but that didn’t last very long. But overall, that was my dream, it was this pre-packaged deal of becoming a doctor. Actually, my sister ended up becoming a doctor so at least my parents got one out of the two of us. It just wasn’t meant to be for me.

Leland: Where your parents pressing you towards the direction of being in the medical field or was this something you really wanted?

Dr. Kim: I don’t think they pressing so much because it just seemed obvious to them. Sometimes we forget or don’t realize when we are young is what can seem like pressure from your family is really just they are trying to think of what the best path for you is so you can become successful with life. In this case of being from an immigrant family, we only had a certain amount of “status” in this country and for a lot of immigrants becoming a doctor was a guaranteed thing. It’s just what I realized I didn’t want to do.

Leland: I know you received your bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale, what was that experience like for you?

Dr. Kim: I loved my years at Yale, I went to a great high-school in Chicago called the University of Chicago laboratory high-school so academically I didn’t think that Yale was anything new of an academic and intellectual environment compared to my high school. The most exciting thing about Yale was, it was the kind of school where everyone I met was not only a great student, but everyone seemed to be really passionate about something in addition to their studies. It was a student body of people who were not afraid to be enthusiastic. It was a really fun place to be, the people there are a little over the top and that always made it interesting and exciting because whenever you met someone they had all these other dimensions to them. Not only were they interested in other things, they were also good at other things.

Leland: After Yale, did you take a break from college? What was life like for you then?

Dr. Kim: That’s when I began all of my graduate studies in music, I ended up attending the Peabody institute of John Hopkins University in Baltimore Maryland. There I got my masters degree, my artist diploma, and my doctorate in piano. So I had been studying piano seriously as an undergraduate at Yale, but I never majored in music at Yale. I turned my entire focus to that as a graduate student and ended up staying in Baltimore for 13 years.

Leland: I noticed after Baltimore you ended up living in El Paso Texas, Why did you move, and what encouraged you to do so?

Dr. Kim: I spent 8 years in El Paso, and ended up taking a job as the artistic and administrative director of El Paso Pro Musica which was a small nonprofit arts organization, it was basically a concert presenter. That was a very important part of my life because when I got to El Paso I realized I was a really great Pianist and a smart guy, but I didn’t have a clue about what it would take to actually be successful in a kind of job where I’d be sitting in front of people playing piano for them. This is actually what motivates a lot of my thinking for this place (Columbia) I don’t want our students to graduate without some real understanding what it actually takes to translate your real creative interest into real-world success. So the first year in El Paso was very difficult for me because it was also a struggling organization and I was very naive and didn’t understand the degree to why that organization was having a hard time. I had to figure out fast on the job what to do. It ended up being a really great period within my life because we turned that organization around and really connected El Paso Pro Musica to the broader community at a lot of different levels and I found that was extremely gratifying, and it made the work much more meaningful. As a classical musician, I had tended to live in a world that was somewhat removed from the more general population of the larger world, so I had to figure out ways how this organization and classical music could connect and learn from the community. It was very important work for me.

Leland: How would say being a classical pianist has influenced how you do your job here as CEO and president of Columbia College Chicago?

Dr. Kim: Being a classical musician is all about suffering under the burden of realizing you will never be perfect. So you learn a very meticulous type of discipline, and you also learn how to constantly question the choices you make in relationship to the desired results. It’s a very intensely self-reflective way of being in the world. I hope that has helped me here at Columbia because I’m always questioning whether it is something that I want to accomplish or whether it makes sense or not.

Leland: How did you become a part of Columbia College Chicago? Did they reach out to you, or did you reach out to them?

Dr. Kim: Before my time here at Columbia, I was at Arizona State University as the dean of all the arts and design programs. I had been thinking about what my next step should be, and Columbia had contacted me through an executive search firm. I remember at the beginning my first response was “No, not interested” and they asked why not? I told them that I wasn’t sure if my background as a classical musician would really make sense for me to take this position given Columbia’s culture. They then told me to read the mission statement, and one thing that I love about this school is at the core of this college’s mission statement it says that we are preparing young people to become authors of the culture of their times. I read that a couple of times and thought to myself wow that’s a very powerful statement because traditionally in schools that call themselves art schools or art institutions, the whole idea is that you just keep “cranking out the next generation of.” In that idea is embedded the idea that the perfections exist, and we have to train our students to fit. Educating young people to become authors of future cultures is almost the exact opposite of what we are saying. We are saying that our students are going to go off and invent the future, they are going to invent new industries, they are going to invent and create new jobs, and all together that was what really excited me. Now that I am here, I think it’s true and it’s really what this place stands for.

Leland: What were some obstacles that you faced when you first started your presidency here at Columbia?

Dr. Kim: I don’t know so much if there were necessarily obstacles here, but there were more so challenges. How much time do you take to really study a place, and really understand that you can make decisions that are meaningful and authentic? It’s always an interesting question because any place that is as large or as complex as Columbia is going to have things happening all over the place. So you can’t take too long because if you let too much time go by, then you fall behind. If you don’t take enough time then you make decisions that aren’t really responsible. For me that first year, that was really a constant question about when I should move, when I should sit back and observe, or when should I speak. I think what has been challenging here also is making sure that I am hiring the right people for the leadership positions of the institution. It’s hard to find people who have the right combination of professional skills and experience in higher education, but people who also are capable of understanding what this place really is, because Columbia is a really distinctive place. It doesn’t matter if you are successful and hired because that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be successful here. Overall I’d say in general what I’ve been trying very hard to do, is to keep reminding everybody at this institution that we are here for our students. That seems obvious, and I think for the faculty it is particularly obvious, but even though higher education exists for students, it doesn’t necessarily revolve around students. There are a lot of places where higher education only exist’s for the faculty, and I’d say that Columbia is not one of those places. So it has been very important for me to keep reminding people starting with myself that this school is about our students. Something that has been really important to me is creating this brand new student center because it’s sort of a physical manifestation of Columbia’s commitment to our students and their experience.

Leland: What are some of the successes that you have experienced as president here.

Dr. Kim: I think we have a lot of really gifted leaders in place now. We have a really exciting strategic plan that maps out how Columbia can get to its next level of development. I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself, but I actually feel like I have been able to build a really strong relationship with a lot of the student body. That was such a high priority for me, and I really wanted to see it happen. I truly feel it now whenever I interact with our students. Unfortunately, we are too big for me to know individually every single one of our students, but I feel like students don’t feel like I am a stranger to them, and that’s very important to me. It’s all a work in progress.

Leland: Something that I have noticed during my time at Columbia, is that leadership plays a big role in the student body. How would you define being a leader? Especially as someone who is CEO and president of an entire college in a city as big as Chicago?

Dr. Kim: To me, the fundamental core of leadership is the act of stepping forward. I define leadership as the willingness to observe a need, gap, or opportunity and to be able to step into it. That to me is truly what distinguishes who is a leader, and who is not? Leading an institution like Columbia requires the ability to be even-tempered, and very steady. There are so many things going on here, and there are so many different personalities and so many different needs. It is very important to be fair and to keep the college’s priorities clear in your mind as you are making decisions. So I think a lot of it is that sometimes I think my job is to try to be calm in the middle of lots of turmoil. The reason why I say turmoil, is because we are in a place that is surrounded by a bunch of creative people who have a lot of energy and passion. I definitely feel it, but I have to stay steady.

When I think about Dr. Kim’s story the first thing that comes to mind is passion. I admire how passionate he is about the success of the students here at Columbia, and I love how invested he is into the growth of this institution. Passion is something that is placed in everyone’s heart. Find out what you are passionate about, and pursue it. I say this because we only have a certain amount of breaths here on earth, why waste them doing something you hate. Love what you do, and do what you love.

“A strong passion for any object will ensure success, for the desire of the end will point out the means.” – William Hazlitt



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