On a cloudy March afternoon, Sabrina Kim and about 30 of her fellow UCLA Luskin Urban Planning students gather in the council chambers of Hawthorne City Hall, preparing for presentations to members of the Hawthorne Planning Commission.
Downtown Hawthorne isn’t what it used to be. An abandoned shopping mall, shuttered in 1999, occupies several square blocks of what was once a vibrant urban center, and the commissioners are wrestling with what can be done to transform this valuable real estate — the heart of their city.
“Hi, I’m Sabrina Kim, and I’d like to introduce you to my fellow students. We are honored to be here today to show you what we’re proposing for your city …”
For the next 10 minutes, Kim and four other students present options for a new Hawthorne — a chance for economic growth, capitalizing on Elon Musk’s SpaceX headquarters, a Tesla assembly plant, an adjoining Green Line Station and the nearby Hawthorne Airport.
As part of Urban Planning lecturer Gaurav Srivastava’s studio class on transportation and land use, the students have been split into groups, and they’ve spent the winter quarter preparing plans for Hawthorne city leaders to consider.
This experience in a Southern California city hall is but one example of how Kim has devoted time and studies in her final year at UCLA Luskin to addressing the needs of Southern California cities and residents.
Sabrina Kim’s father as a young soldier in South Korea.
A Tale of Two Koreas
Kim Nam Hyun was born in Seoul, South Korea. She lived there until she was 12, then moved to Canada to live with her aunts for more than two and a half years before returning to South Korea — the same country that’s been in the news for much of the past year because of political turmoil between the North, South and the U.S.
Her grandmother’s siblings remained in North Korea, though she has never met them and doesn’t know if they’re still alive.
“I have always considered North Korea part of one country, but I think now with all the situation going on … more and more people are thinking of us as two different countries,” Kim says. “It’s interesting because my sister is eight years younger than me, and she thinks of North Korea as just another country. Whereas, when I went to elementary school in Korea, we used to be taught that we’re just one country, but we’re divided by the political situation.”
Kim moved to Canada because her parents wanted her to improve her English and her doctor thought it would be better for her asthma. After returning to Korea she enrolled in an arts high school in Seoul. “I so love art and I sometimes paint or draw,” she says. “But I could see that it will be really difficult for me to make a living by just doing art.”
She then attended a private research institution in South Korea, Hongik University, to study engineering. “It’s important to note that urban planning is part of the engineering school in Korea and when you’re looking for a job, having an engineering degree is a big plus,” Kim says.
Kim then cast a wide net for graduate schools in the U.S. Her faculty adviser at Hanyang received his Ph.D. at Berkeley and recommended that she study at a UC.
“So I started looking from the West Coast, while most of Korean people who want to study abroad look at the East Coast first. I applied to Berkeley, UCLA, NYU, Columbia and Johns Hopkins.”
She was accepted into both UCLA and Johns Hopkins, but she recalls coming to the admitted students day here at UCLA Luskin and “loving it.”
Sabrina Kim interned at the Southern California Association of Governments in downtown L.A. Photo by George Foulsham
SCAG: ‘A Great Opportunity’
After finishing her first year in pursuit of a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, Kim was hired as an intern at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), where she works on the 16th floor of a high-rise in downtown L.A.
“I am part of the research analysis department,” says Kim, one of about two dozen interns working at SCAG, a nonprofit committed to a more sustainable Southern California. She works with geographic information systems, or GIS, data. “If you see a map anywhere, they’re all made with GIS,” she says. “I’ve taught GIS at UCLA for two quarters, and now I’m interning as a research analysis team.”
Kim and her colleagues update zoning and general plans for cities.
“The first project I got involved in was updating the land information of 191 cities of Southern California,” she says. “Each city has their own map of their land use, but they’re all in different codes. So a high residential area in the city of Los Angeles might be different from high-level residential development in Hawthorne. We gather all land-use information from those 191 cities and put them together into one standard zoning code so we know what Southern California looks like overall.”
The work is challenging, educational and immensely satisfying.
“I actually never imagined myself doing something like this or being a part of this project,” she says. “One year ago, I’d say I was just excited to be in L.A., excited to start the program. But to be a part of something bigger that affects not only L.A., but thousands of cities in Southern California and even outside of California — SCAG is the biggest metropolitan organization in terms of planning — I’m really proud of what SCAG stands for and it’s really a great opportunity for me.”
In fact, Kim partnered with SCAG for her MURP second-year client project. Her presentation, “Still No to Transit?” asked: Which areas of Los Angeles County do not meet the full potential of transit commuting?
While researching the project, Kim met with representatives of governments from throughout Southern California to discuss sites that could be redeveloped and which sites have access to high-quality transit areas. The project was designed in part to address transit needs in L.A. by 2028, when Southern California will host the Summer Olympics.
Her research showed that even if L.A. residents live in a high-quality transit area, many Angelenos aren’t riding the lines because buses or trains don’t take them to their work, or final destination. “SCAG and I want to calculate transit demand and compare it with transit supply,” she says.
Kim is studying at UCLA Luskin on an F1 international student visa. She has seen her family in Korea only twice since arriving at UCLA almost two years ago. The last time was in March before the annual UCLA Luskin student spring break trip to Japan, which she helped organize.
Sabrina Kim, second from left, helped organize the 2018 student trip to Japan. Photo by Tessa McFarland
Her Luskin Family
Being away from her family — especially her sister — has been difficult, but it’s made somewhat easier because of the UCLA Luskin family — her fellow students.
“It was less difficult than I thought it would be because everyone was so welcoming, Kim says. “I was so surprised because in Korea everyone is so competitive. There are only a certain amount of people that can get A’s, B’s, and C’s. So even though you’re classmates, you’re actually competing with each other, so no one shares notes unless you’re really good friends.
“But here everyone is so open to help me out, especially with grammar and writing. Luskin students are open to reviewing what I wrote, sharing lecture notes and answers for the assignments.”
One more nice thing about living here? “There’s also a Koreatown in L.A. so I don’t have any problems with food.”
After she graduates in June, she hopes to find a job in L.A. so her visa can be extended. And she hopes that it will wind up being at SCAG or another nonprofit.
“I worked with a nonprofit organization in Korea before I moved out here and I didn’t think it was a good fit for me,” Kim says. “So I always saw myself going into the private sector. But after coming here and working with SCAG — and being part of different research projects that stem from nonprofit organizations and research institutes — I see myself doing more data analysis for nonprofit organizations.”
Kim is grateful to UCLA Luskin for the chance to work with SCAG and for the other opportunities she’s had over the past two years.
“Luskin School has really changed my life,” she says. “The classes are amazing. The professors are always willing to help you out and talk to you. But I think if I had to choose one thing about this school that I loved most, it’d have to be the people I met: my cohort, my classmates. It’s really cool to be part of a group where everyone’s interests are the same and we all fight for the same thing. We fight for the community, better sustainability and development, a more healthy environment for the future generations.
“The friends I made on campus and in class are the most valuable things I’ve gained here, and Luskin School is the one I should be thanking.”
View more photos of the three students in a Flickr album