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Korean Immigrant's Story: From Housemaid to Harvard

Jin Kyu Robertson has come a long way since she immigrated to the United States as a housemaid when she was 22. Since then, she rose to the rank of major in the U.S. Army and completed a doctorate at Harvard University.

Jin Robertson says she had inauspicious beginnings, but her story shows the power of perseverance. She was the child of tavern owner, and neither of her parents ever attended school. By the time Jin was in sixth grade, she excelled at her studies, and her parents agreed to let her complete middle and high school.

There was no money for college, so she worked in a factory, as a waitress and housemaid. One day, she saw a newspaper ad for a housemaid in America. She applied for the job, over her family's objections.

"I was 22 years old, and I didn't speak much English at all," she said. "And I had only $100 to my name, so that was my beginning, and a one-way ticket. So it was quite a challenge, I suppose."

The job she came for had been filled by the time she reached New York, but she would find work as waitress, then as a hostess in a Jewish restaurant in New York's financial district.

"So what I did was, I practiced the words, like 'good morning,' 'good afternoon,' 'this way please,' and 'enjoy your meal,' and those were all the words you needed," she said. "And 'thank you.' I can say that. So I practiced that and I started working as a hostess down in Wall Street."

Little more than 10 years later, Jin was a U.S. army officer stationed in Germany, overseeing 50 soldiers, and marveling at how far she had come in her life.

She decided early that the key to her dreams was education. She started college while working in New York. She also met and married a man, but the marriage was difficult, and she found a way out by joining the Army.

Her English was poor and she was 10 years older than most of the other recruits. Basic training was grueling, but she persevered, and finished first in her class. The Army allowed her to continue her college studies and she would eventually become an officer.

She found other opportunities in the military, and she pursued one she thought was tailor-made for an immigrant from Asia. The Army employs regional specialists known as foreign area officers, and needed one in Japan. She applied, but was rejected. She says that did not stop her.

"Many cases, when someone turns you down, they just accept it, grumble and angry and accept it, and then go for some other route," she said. "But I liked the program. I wanted the program so bad, so I went to Washington D.C., the decision makers, and I asked them, why was I turned down?"

She says Army officials worried a woman officer would face problems in a male-oriented country like Japan. She disputed the idea, and asked if Japanese officials looked down on Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Britain. Of course not, was the reply.

"So it took me one day, and they reversed the decision," she said.

Robertson represented the U.S. Army as liaison to the Japanese Self Defense Forces, the first woman to hold that position.

She also kept her focus on education. She completed a master's degree at Harvard University in East Asian studies, and enrolled in a doctoral program, focusing on relations among the United States, Korea and Japan. After retiring from the Army with the rank of Major, she returned to Harvard to finish her Ph.D.

Robertson says she has always confronted her weaknesses head-on. She was afraid of heights, so enrolled in an Army Airborne program that forced her to parachute from a helicopter.

After she finished her doctorate, she started getting requests to give motivational speeches.

"I didn't know I was able to speak in public, really," she said. "Always, whenever I thought about speaking, even giving briefings in the military, my heart was pounding so bad and I was so nervous, I couldn't even drink water."

She says again she persevered, and found her confidence growing as the audiences responded.

"I found this amazing great exhilarating feeling, and I said, wow, I love this public speaking," she admitted.

Jin Robertson says one of her proudest accomplishments was raising her daughter, Jasmin. Also a Harvard graduate, Jasmin has followed in her mother's footsteps and serves as a captain in the U.S. Army.