‘I want to be there to hold their hand’

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‘I want to be there to hold their hand’


Lee Ji-sun poses for a picture with her mother, Shim Jung, on her right, and her father, Lee Byung-chun, on her left, after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a doctoral degree on June 10. [OH SE-JIN]

Lee Ji-sun has become an icon of strength and perseverance after surviving a car accident, undergoing 40 surgeries in order to recover from severe burns and graduating with a Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) last Friday.

Lee was attending Ewha Womans University when she was hit by a drunk driver in July 2000. She rose to fame after publishing her book, “Love you Ji-sun” (2003), in which she chronicles her rehabilitation.

“I made up my mind to live for disabled people,” the 38-year-old Lee said.

She began her studies again in 2005, at first enrolling at Boston University to study rehabilitation psychology for her master’s degree. But the course didn’t meet her expectations, and she transferred to Columbia University to complete her master’s in social welfare in 2008 before entering UCLA in 2010 to earn her doctorate.

Q. How do you feel now that you earned your Ph.D.?

A. I’m happy but worried at the same time. It’s now the time when I have to work for the betterment of society, but I worry whether I can get things done in the right way and actually contribute.

What was your doctorate thesis about?

I studied how ordinary people’s perception of disabled people shifts over time. The purpose was to see what could be done to change people’s stereotypes about disabled individuals.

Did you find a way?

There certainly were accomplishments. I learned how to create programs where able-bodied people can be closer to disabled people through their studies.

My conclusion was that we have to provide as many opportunities as possible where people can interact and mingle with disabled people. I want to create camps and other programs in welfare organizations for this purpose.

Were your studies difficult?

It was difficult. The first year of studying for my master’s was especially burdensome because there was so much to study, and my English ability was poor. I was always last in my class. It was a difficult time. Once, I even cried in the bathroom.

How did you overcome it?

It was sometime in May 2011 when I submitted an assignment late and wasn’t eligible to take a test. I was so mad at myself, and I thought it had to stop, so I put all my efforts into my studies. I was doing a lot of lectures after publishing the book, but after that, I canceled all the lectures and concentrated only on my studies.

I poured everything into it, and I received a really high score for the test I had failed before. Even the professors were surprised. They introduced me as an exemplary senior in an orientation for freshmen. I had turned the game around. I became more confident after that.

What are your plans?

First, I’m going to write a children’s book. I want to tell children that disabled people are just slightly different from other people and that there’s nothing “wrong” with them. My life story will be narrated through my nephew’s perspective in the book. I’m also thinking of writing an essay about my experience studying in the United States and publishing it as a book.

Now that you have a new start ahead of you, what are you looking forward to the most?

I want to become the person that I’ve always wanted to be, someone who is there to hold another person’s hand.

BY OH SE-JIN [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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