As a teenager, Andy Shin ’23, M.P.A. ’25, spent Independence Day volunteering at the festivities in his hometown of Diamond Bar, California; already he associated the Fourth of July with service, community and the diversity he had come to love in the U.S.
But Shin didn’t feel entirely a part of that community – because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
“I really, really wanted to become an American,” Shin said. “I knew this is where I wanted to live. I saw so much potential here, and as corny as it sounds, I really love this country.”
Shin’s mother had immigrated from South Korea with Shin, then 12, and his older brother in 2010; she wanted her sons to have access to higher quality education.
Twelve years later – after graduating high school, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and nearly finishing his undergraduate studies at Cornell – Shin gained his citizenship last November.
“There were so many moments where I thought about just giving up,” Shin said. “But I made a promise to myself that I would do it, and I wanted to see it through.”
With citizenship, Shin can now plan his future in the states. “It gave me the most American thing: freedom,” Shin said. “Now I have the confidence to pursue any area I want to be immersed in.”
Ready to serve
Shin’s path was guided by a mentor in the small city of Diamond Bar, near Los Angeles: Jack Tanaka, a Japanese-American civic leader and retired Army master sergeant who advised the local Youth Lions Club. As a high school student, Shin completed hundreds of hours of community service through the club, and, inspired by Tanaka’s military service (as well as the service of many members of his family in Korea), he made plans to join the U.S. Army.
Shin’s fluency in Korean made him eligible for a program, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), that recruited legal nonresidents with valuable skills; he signed the contract in 2015, even before graduating high school, with the intention of becoming an airborne medic. But just before Shin was to be deployed for basic training, the Department of Defense suspended the MAVNI program, and Shin’s initial training date (or ship-out date) was delayed, and delayed again.
“After three or four months of waiting, my brain was getting fried, and I had to put it to work somewhere,” Shin said.
He enrolled in community college and committed himself to academics while awaiting orders. Months stretched to years of waiting, but he continued to hone and develop his interest in environment and sustainability, equity-focused community-building, and efforts, at the intersection of the public and private sectors, to combat climate change. His work eventually led to his acceptance to Cornell in 2020.
That same year, Shin obtained a green card and was finally eligible to complete basic training; he was shipped off to South Carolina with just enough time: hours after he graduated from training, he boarded a plane for Ithaca to begin classes.
For the past three years, Shin has served in the Army Reserve, traveling to Vestal, New York one weekend a month and completing training over the summers while pursuing his major in environment and sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Despite the delays, Shin said his service in the military has reinforced his love of country, particularly its diversity. “Equal opportunity is something the Army really holds sacred,” Shin said. “I have not seen the Army tolerate any kind of discrimination. And when you’re going through the same thing - often challenging things - with a group of people, you care for one another despite race or place of origin. I really see a future in the U.S. because of that diversity and the respect for differences.”
At Cornell, Shin said he’s had experiences he never thought possible. Last spring, he traveled to Egypt with a class taught by Allison Chatrchyan, senior research associate in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Global Development (CALS), to participate in the United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP27. Last summer, with support from Henry Renard ’54, M.B.A. ’55, Shin traveled with the Cornell Army ROTC to the Netherlands to participate in the Four Days March. Over four days, he marched 100 miles with a 30-pound pack during a historic heat wave – he said it was one of the most grueling and rewarding things he’s ever done.
“I woke up after finishing day one, and I felt like I got hit by a train,” Shin said. “My body was just broken. But I heard bustling around me, and I looked around, and all my friends from Cornell – they weren’t complaining. They were just getting up, getting dressed, tying their boot laces. And I did exactly the same thing. What that taught me was that, if you have a team, a unit, you can do things that you didn’t think were possible.”
Shin has found community at Cornell at the Veteran Program House, established in 2021, where he now serves as a resident adviser. “I’m very proud to say that we all built this community together,” Shin said. “We take care of one another.”
Case in point: on the eve of Shin’s naturalization ceremony, he was making every effort to wear his Army dress greens according to regulations, but it was his first time wearing them. His roommate, Mark Minton ’23, a 16-year Army veteran, jumped in to help.
“He just started polishing my shoes, putting creases in the uniform; he gave me an American flag pin he’d gotten through his work at the State Department. The next day, he drove me to the courthouse in Syracuse and stood by me,” Shin said. “That whole day, I felt taken care of, and that camaraderie was something I’ll never forget until I die.”
As an inaugural DeAngelis Family Fellow, Shin will continue to focus on service to community as a master’s student in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, where he’ll work on major infrastructure projects that aim to mitigate climate change and help marginalized groups overcome the disproportionate challenges they face.
His first Fourth of July as a U.S. citizen will be spent in classic fashion: celebrating with a barbecue at Stewart Park in Ithaca with other student veterans. He said he’ll also be thinking of the people who have made his journey possible, including Tanaka, who passed away in 2017, and his family.
“I think the takeaway from my story,” Shin said, “is to never be afraid to ask for help and to never, never quit.”