A portrait of a woman standing outside.
Katie Kim, a second-year doctoral student in the School of Social Work, was selected for the Minority Fellowship Program of the Council on Social Work Education. (Photo by Allison Bell)

VCU social work doctoral student Katie Kim selected for national Minority Fellowship Program

Her research, centered on the childhood impact of parental alcohol misuse, aims to address health disparities.

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Katie Kim’s recent selection for a prestigious fellowship is another step in her journey – to the United States, to discovering social work and to finding her niche in researching the impacts of childhood trauma.

Kim, a second-year doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, was among a group of Ph.D. students selected nationally for the 2023-24 Minority Fellowship Program of the Council on Social Work Education, the accrediting organization for the field in the U.S. 

“Honestly, when I heard the news, it took my breath away for a moment,” Kim said. “I felt a strong, quiet thankfulness wash over me. It seemed like the community I’m a part of was telling me, ‘We notice your efforts, and we support where you’re headed.’”

Studying an ‘important gap’

Kim’s research is centered on how cultural, social and individual factors shape cognitive responses to adverse childhood experiences through a developmental lens. Her primary focus is ACEs stemming from parental alcohol misuse.

“My particular interest lies in examining how these early life experiences influence alcohol-related health outcomes in later stages of life,” Kim said.

The Minority Fellowship Program supports research to improve health disparities around mental health and substance use, which Kim describes as “harmoniously” aligning with her interests in a trauma-informed approach that serves BIPOC communities – for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. In addition to mentorship and networking opportunities with scholars and experts, Kim said the fellowship “will facilitate collaborative research, fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural competencies in behavioral health, trauma and substance use disorder interventions.”

Kim credits academic and personal mentorship from VCU social work faculty members Denise Burnette, Ph.D.; Karen Chartier, Ph.D.; and Mer Francis, Ph.D. , whose research areas largely intersect under the theme of substance use disorders. Kim, Chartier and Francis have made three presentations together in 2023.

“This is a major accomplishment for Katie and a wonderful recognition of her exceptional work,” Francis said of Kim’s fellowship. “She has consistently brought new ideas to our research teams about how to explore the impact of trauma, resilience and social supports on substance use outcomes in the context of race, ethnicity and gender.

“Katie’s research focus – on how our sociocultural backgrounds shape how we experience and process trauma and how that in turn relates to substance use – is ultimately aimed at developing culturally competent trauma interventions for people with substance use problems,” Francis said. “This is such an important gap in our clinical knowledge, and I’m excited to see the innovation that Katie brings to the field both here at VCU and in her future work.”

Personal lessons from life

Kim said she feels a kinship with those experiencing adversity, based on her own life obstacles – whether learning English after moving to the U.S. from South Korea at age 17, learning to manage her finances or coming to understand new social rules.

“I know what it’s like to be a new person, to be different, to rebuild from square one,” she said. “It’s this firsthand experience that fuels my deep-seated empathy for others on the margins and my drive to stand beside them, working to lift them up, just as I was lifted.”

Kim came to realize she was not alone in her struggles – and that adversity could become a force for change.

“This realization guided me straight to the heart of social work, a field deeply aligned with my values of treating every person with respect and valuing the connections we forge with one another,” she said. “These aren’t just principles to me – they are lived experiences.”

Kim earned undergraduate and master degrees in social work from George Mason University and the University of Michigan, respectively. An internship at a Veterans Administration clinic in Michigan let her see the “profound trauma that many individuals carried with them, ranging from childhood hardships to the distress of warfare” – and it strengthened her resolve.

She then became a fellow with the Yale Stress Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Her research focused on the link between childhood trauma and its long-lasting effects on adults, including substance use and behavioral problems, and the influence of gender and cultural differences.

“By untangling the complex web of one’s beliefs – which can have a significant impact on emotional responses and behavioral patterns in adulthood, often leading to chronic mental health problems – my research aims to shed light on how early adversities affect trauma.”

Katie Kim

Breaking a cycle of adversity

With her current research, Kim describes the impacts of parental alcohol abuse as a “dark cloud encompassing neglect, domestic violence and abuse. Picture a child trying to find their way in a world overshadowed by these harsh realities,” she said. “It is the deep and often invisible scars left by these experiences that I am determined to bring to light and address.”

The unresolved trauma of ACEs perpetuates a cycle of adversity, Kim said. To break it, she is exploring how adversity shapes a belief system, a complex connection of personal, societal and cultural narratives.

“By untangling the complex web of one’s beliefs – which can have a significant impact on emotional responses and behavioral patterns in adulthood, often leading to chronic mental health problems – my research aims to shed light on how early adversities affect trauma,” Kim said.

And she emphasizes that life’s challenges aren’t just obstacles but opportunities. “They’re chances for us, and for our communities, to grow stronger, to build ourselves anew.

“Every step I take is guided by a desire to truly understand the deep, intricate stories that make us who we are,” Kim added. “And beyond understanding, to forge connections rooted in kindness, in a willingness to step into another’s shoes and in the unwavering belief that grounded research can light the way.”