Meet the Johnnies: Yunju Park (A20)

July 7, 2020 | By Shweta Agarwal (A21)

Yunju Park (A20)

This summer, rising senior Shweta Agarwal (A21) is getting in touch with fellow Johnnies—both alums and current students—to find out how they’re spending their socially distanced summers. In early June, she spoke with Yunju Park (A20), a recent graduate living in Annapolis.

Yunju Park (A20) is currently making the most of life in her bright Annapolis apartment, enjoying the smell of her eucalyptus plant and the light breeze coming through her three windows. Before arriving at St. John’s, Park attended Sejong University in Korea, where she studied economics; home for her is in Masan, Korea. Despite the vast changes in location and subject matter between now and then, Park says she doesn’t necessarily miss her home country. “I find happiness from what I am doing, rather than what country I am in or what cultures I am surrounded by—although I know that they are connected,” she explains. “I am happy in the States right now because I am doing the things that I want to do, and I am excited to go back to Korea at the end of the summer because of the things that I am planning on doing there.”

Park says the years between her time at Sejong University and her graduation from St. John’s have marked important personal growth. During her first year at Sejong University, she remembers walking down the street with a friend when they passed several activists collecting signatures for a petition. In Park’s family, politics wasn’t a frequent topic of discussion—while they treasured each other and fostered a loving home environment, it wasn’t a place where greater societal issues came up at the dinner table.

Then, that day in university, “my friend just went ahead and gave his signature [to the petitions],” Park recalls. “By seeing my friend giving his signature, I recognized my power as a political being in society, which changed how I perceive the world around me.”

It’s fitting, then, that two of Park’s favorite Program books are Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk—two of the last books the Class of 2020 read for seminar. In particular, she admires how those two books inspired conversations about sexism, racism, and fundamental Johnnie ideas of virtue and justice.

“Reading these books made me rethink the philosopher’s role in society,” she explains. “I used to think that the ideal worlds of philosophers and activists were two different things. However, the work of activists and oppressed groups towards gaining freedom can teach humanity as a whole the meaning of freedom, and how to attain it.”

Park’s growing relationship with politics is mirrored in other facets of her life—especially art and music, two disciplines she’s pursued throughout her time at St. John’s. She recently released a song, “Sink,” for which she wrote lyrics, played every instrument, and created a music video.

“The lyrics read, ‘You act like I have somewhere to go, but you know I have nowhere to go,’” says Park, describing the lonesome feeling of attempting to fit into an existing culture without bringing her own experiences and individuality. “I can be perceived as a cool, artistic Asian, but at the end of the day, I don’t have the social safety net that the people who have family in the States have, nor do I understand the culture or language like people who grew up here do.”

“I felt very isolated even though I was loved very sincerely,” she adds. “[But] even though the song is not super hopeful, expressing how I felt was itself liberating. I believe that creating a narrative for oneself with your own voice is beneficial for both the individual and society.”

Following her 2020 summer in Annapolis, Park plans to return to Korea for a master’s program in landscape architecture. Similar to her ideas on the interconnectedness of philosophy and activism, she sees landscape architecture and urban design as functional ways to implement positive change in the world.

“For a while, I didn’t believe in the individual’s power to make changes regarding social and environmental issues,” she says. Then, the summer after her sophomore year, she attended the Design Discovery program at Harvard, where she met people passionately fighting to improve housing conditions, combat climate change, and broadly use their academic passions to better people’s lives. “Their active attitude towards social and environmental issues inspired me, and I chose to incorporate that into my life. I judged that the most fitting way for me to do so would be doing the work of a landscape architect, so I decided to pursue it.”

In preparation for graduate study, Park has been reading Building and Dwelling by Richard Sennett, as well as Nick Robinson’s The Planting Design Handbook. After reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs in a preceptorial, Park found herself faced with an urgent question: “How can I adapt the things I learned from this book to the world as a designer?” She found answers in her summer reading. In the introduction to Building and Dwelling, Sennett divides the concept of the city into ville and cité; the former being the physical, and the latter being mental and cultural. At the end of the book, he demonstrates methods of bringing the two together.

“He uses Aristotle and Heidegger to help readers understand the history and issues of urban development,” Park says. “This is the first book that I grabbed after graduation, and I am happy that it happened to be a book that helps me connect my years at St. John’s and my future.”

Similarly, in The Planting Handbook, Robinson emphasizes that a space is not its own standalone entity—instead, it’s a functional part of a greater system. Again, Park connected the text to her undergrad experience. “At St. John’s, I grew a habit of connecting things that are seemingly in two different categories; I hope this habit continues so that I can use it in my career to understand the complexity that a space holds.”

It’s easy to see a Johnnie spirit in the nuanced understanding of landscape architecture—something that many people take for granted. There’s a constant questioning involved: Why this space? Why not this design? How can architecture and urban design contribute to ideas like virtue, justice, equality? It’s part of a St. John’s-esque endeavor to seek truth and meaning—everywhere.

“Living and changing beings have always fascinated me in the way that art in museum cannot. I love the lines that trees draw and the uncertainty that act holds,” Park says. “As a landscape architect, I want to work with those things and live as a poet, philosopher, and so many other things.”

If her art, poetry, and music are any indication, a long career as a landscape architect lies ahead.