Bellisario College doctoral student studies refugees in the media

Jonathan F. McVerry
April 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.– For graduate student Bumgi Min, experience drives his research ideas. It was a chance meeting with North Korean refugees that sparked his interest in refugee communications, and it was a conversation with a student that led Min to his dissertation idea.

The fourth-year doctoral student in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications found a wealth of research on immigration issues in the United States, as well as how refugees from Central and South America and Eastern Europe were portrayed in the media. The average news consumer, however, may not be aware that several Asian countries, like China, Taiwan and South Korea, are also dealing with their own immigration issues.

“We don’t hear very much from the Asian perspective,” Min said. “I want to give a voice and context to Asian countries.”

The Bellisario College at Penn State opened a door for Min to find and share those voices.

“We don’t hear very much from the Asian perspective. I want to give a voice and context to Asian countries.”

– Bumgi Min, doctoral student, Bellisario College of Communications

It’s been a long journey from his home city of Seoul, South Korea, where Min met North Korean refugees while attending a book-release party. At the time, he was majoring in journalism and mass communication at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. The relationship he’d form with that group of refugees would alter his academic path.

“Even though the South and North share a common historical background and language,” Min said, “I found that they had a hard time adapting to South Korean society — particularly the value systems.”

South Korea is capitalist; North Korea is socialist, and the gap between cultures is cavernous, said Min, adding that the media, which is heavily regulated and government-controlled in North Korea, play a significant role in how each country’s culture has developed over the past several decades.

Min said the North Korean refugees often couldn’t understand what their new South Korean neighbors were saying and found it difficult to fit in. This gap in communication guided Min to graduate school and he moved 7,000 miles away and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Texas at Austin.

“My master’s thesis was on how North Korean refugees use social media to adapt to South Korean society,” Min said. “My research focused on telecommunications and the digital divide.”

“Bumgi is part of an emerging power couple [with Jinsook]. I am excited to see how bright the future shapes up for those two.”

– Krishna Jayakar, professor of telecommunications, Bellisario College

While in Austin, Min met his future wife, Jinsook Kim, who also shares an interest in communications. Today, the two live in State College with their 2-year-old daughter and are both finishing doctorate work. Kim is focusing on online misogyny and feminist activism while finishing her dissertation for the University of Texas, while Min completes his for Penn State.

“We are both preparing for a life in academia,” Min said. “We study different areas of communications, but she provides great insights for what I’m working on. I do the same for her.”

Min’s adviser, Krishna Jayakar, said, “Bumgi is part of an emerging power couple. I am excited to see how bright the future shapes up for those two.”

Min’s transitions from Seoul to Austin to State College haven’t always been smooth — particularly because of the weather — but Min stays busy by working in a lab group, which meets biweekly and is conducting research of its own.

In addition to learning how to conduct research, Min is training in the classroom too — as a teacher. Jayakar, a professor of telecommunications, said Min has become a thoughtful and inspiring instructor in the international mass communications course he leads for the Bellisario College.

“He has a casual, likeable, easygoing presence in the classroom that makes people relax and open up,” Jayakar said. “But he is anything but casual in his approach to class preparation. He prepares painstakingly, and it shows in how smoothly his class flows.”

During a class, one of Min’s students brought up some news about refugees. The student had seen the news story on a friend’s social media feed and was adamant about its authenticity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true, said Min; the story was legitimate “fake news.” Min was fascinated that a younger person, presumably highly literate in digital media, would believe misinformation on social media.

He redirected his research interests toward this type of misinformation and how it affects the perception of refugees.

“I will look at fake news and focus on the message and the reaction of the audiences,” Min said. “I will also look at factors like digital accessibility, literacy and social capital, and what roles they have in that perception.”

Min is still developing the experiment that will test participants but plans to compare American and South Korean audiences’ reactions. The experiment will measure the accessibility, digital literacy and social capital of participants and show them either accurate or inaccurate information about refugees. The goal will be to measure how the reader perceives refugees’ roles in their country. (For example: Are they a problem? Are they a benefit?)

“Bumgi’s research is ambitious in scope, but he approaches it with his characteristic humility and thoughtfulness,” Jayakar said. “He has a lot of patience, and though he is asking the big questions, he brings meticulousness and persistence to it. He realizes that getting the right answers takes time, and he wants to get it right.”

Min said Bellisario College faculty members have been incredibly supportive and helpful during his journey toward a doctoral degree. The experience, he said, has guided his research and their advice has always been sound.

“I’ve come a long away,” Min said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able to continue to progress.”

Min plans to complete his dissertation and graduate by spring 2020. He and Kim will be applying for academic jobs in both North America and Asia.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 12, 2019