From the Quad to Congress: Rep. Andy Kim explains why public service is ‘a way of life’

In student event, UChicago alum shares career advice and reflects on educational, professional journey

“I never thought I would run for public office.”

Rep. Andy Kim, AB’04, was explaining how he unexpectedly found himself becoming a member of Congress. It was early February, and the University of Chicago alum was holding a virtual meeting with students in the Law and Politics Cohort—a specialized track of the College’s Careers in Law program for undergraduates interested in pursuing law and public service.

Kim had already found meaning in his prior career as a diplomat and national security official. After graduating from UChicago in 2004, he studied international relations at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and Truman Scholar, joined the State Department as a foreign service officer, served as an adviser to military leaders in Afghanistan, and worked in the White House National Security Council.

Kim loved his work as a civil servant and had no plans to seek political appointments or offices.

But something changed when he became a father.

“In 2017, shortly before my second son was born, the doctors warned us that he could have serious medical complications,” said Kim. “At the same time, I saw that my congressman had voted to take away health care for people with pre-existing conditions. Seeing what my family and many other families in the district were going through, I knew I had to do something.”

That something turned out to be running for Congress. The voters of New Jersey’s third congressional district elected Kim to be their voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 2019. The son of Korean immigrants, he is one of just 18 Asian Americans who currently hold office in the legislative branch of the federal government.

Earlier this year, Kim drew national praise for a simple, powerful act. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, cameras caught Kim walking through the building, picking up water bottles and other debris. Later, he told the Associated Press that he had felt “this kind of heightened, kind of supercharged kind of patriotism.”

“When you see something you love that’s broken you want to fix it,” he said. “I love the Capitol. I’m honored to be there.”

Kim’s work in Congress is just the latest example of how he has applied his undergraduate education, which he describes as a fundamental part of who he is.

Kim first came to UChicago in 2002 as a transfer student. During his time in the College, he studied political science, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and completed internships with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the United States Agency for International Development.

“When you work in government or public service, your job is to solve problems,” said Kim. “A big part of that is knowing how to ask the right questions. UChicago is a great place to learn that type of critical thinking. The texts I read have given me a theoretical toolkit to think through policy issues. To give just one example, I did an independent reading course back in college on Plato’s Republic with Prof. Nathan Tarcov. I re-read the Republic every two years and I’m still learning new things every time!”

Kim’s internship experiences also helped him understand how to apply theory to practice.

“During my first campaign, I drew a lot on my experience with my work-study internship at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless,” said Kim. “That type of grassroots community organizing is an incredibly important skill to have; as I quickly learned, running a campaign doesn’t just mean debating ideas!”

When asked what advice he would give to students considering careers in public service, Kim responded with two recommendations.

“Try to understand what kind of work makes you say, ‘This was a good day,’” Kim advised. “Think about what problem you want to solve. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Even if you end up not liking something, that’s valuable information.”

“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t self-select yourself out of opportunities that interest you. I never in a million years thought I could win a Rhodes Scholarship, but I decided to apply anyway. Putting yourself out there is the first step toward getting where you want to go.”

Kim closed the event with some reflections on what it means to pursue a life of service.

“Public service isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s not just about what you do, but how you do it and how you treat people along the way. It’s important to stay humble and remember that no work is beneath us.”

—Students, are you interested in a career in law, government, or public service? Make an appointment today with an expert adviser from the Careers in Law or Careers in Policy and Social Impact programs.