Sunny Kim, '20, Brings Music to Children in Yucatán

October 24, 2017 | By Aly Barra, '18, and Jake Weber

Sunny Kim with students in Izamal preparing for their first recital. Kim, an Albion sophomore, is from Midland, Mich., and a graduate of H.H. Dow High School.

When Harim "Sunny" Kim prepared for a children's ministry mission trip to Mexico just weeks before starting her first year at Albion College, she of course packed her violin. The winner of Albion's 2016 Distinguished Artist Scholarship, Kim figured she couldn't take a week off from practicing.

"Practice," however, turned out to be far different than her usual scales and exercises. Chul Nam Lee, Korean-American pastor of Bethel International Christian Academy in Izamal, Yucatán, told Kim that "there is very limited access to music here and children are dying to learn to play or to watch someone else play an instrument," Kim said.

"So I played and it was the first time in their lives that they'd ever heard the violin," Kim said. "I was completely reminded why I play this instrument and why I love it so much. I've played in front of hundreds of people many times, but this was the first time that I felt I could move people."

For most musicians, this would just be a great memory. But Kim isn't most musicians. A dynamo with majors in music and economics and management, along with French and Spanish minors, Ford and Gerstacker Institute concentrations, and affiliation with the Honors Program, Kim is also a member of numerous student organizations and works for both the Admission Office and the campus wellness program. Her natural response was "take it to the next level," which Kim realized meant instruments, lessons and, eventually, integrating music into the school for the children of Izamal.

After arriving back on campus, Kim set to work. From cold-calling acquaintances, music teachers and music stores asking for donated instruments to reaching out to Albion faculty for networking and pedagogy advice, Kim’s determination culminated in returning to Izamal in December 2016 with some 40 instruments. However, her involvement did not stop there.

Kim returned to Bethel Academy in June 2017 to complete an internship, helping to coordinate and translate for the American volunteer groups that visited throughout the summer. In addition, she helped teach two summer camps in English and music for the children of Izamal, offered through the school.

When asked about teaching music theory in Spanish, a language she had only begun learning on her previous trips to Izamal, Kim said, “It could be exhausting at times." Spanish is her fourth language, after Korean, English and French. However, she was insistent that her students made it all worth it.

“They were so enthusiastic to learn about music,” remembered Kim. "When I would tell them it was break time, they would just keep practicing, eager to show me how they had improved.”

And while Kim focused on bringing music to the children of Izamal, she noted that they, in turn, raised her own abilities and inspired her as well.

"It's so weird because of course there was no competition; I was the best musician there," she said with a laugh. "But when I was in Izamal, I wanted to practice more and be a better musician, so I could be a better teacher."

A goal that evidence says she reached, because at the end of the summer camp and about six weeks of lessons, her students performed in a concert in front of the entire town.

“It was so amazing,” Kim commented as she recalled the accomplishments of the children. “Music brought them such a sense of pride.”

Now back on campus in her sophomore year, Kim explains that older students she trained while in Izamal will continue to teach music theory classes and private lessons at Bethel Academy. Looking forward, she hopes to find more opportunities to bring music to those who do not have access to it, crediting her experience in Izamal as providing her with valuable international skills that have inspired her to travel to other countries to share the art form that she loves.