Photo of Woori Lee
Woori Lee plans to pursue a career in medicine and advance health care in North Korea. (Photo: Courtesy of Woori Lee.)

Graduating human biology major creates opportunities for North Korean refugees

USC Dornsife senior Woori Lee established a nonprofit that provides aid and resources to individuals like her grandfather who fled the authoritarian nation.
ByGreg Hardesty

In spring semester 2021, Woori Lee took the general education philosophy course “The Meaning of Life.”

A human biology major who plans to go to medical school after graduating this spring from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Lee had already satisfied her general education requirements. But she enrolled in the online, 150-student class to learn more about what to value in life.

The year before provides a good clue about one of her top priorities.

Driven to help

Lee immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was 17, and her grandfather is a North Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1950s. This family history drove her longtime interest in helping refugees from her grandfather’s isolated home country.

So in summer 2020, she co-founded a nonprofit, Aurora NK, with fellow USC Dornsife student Jay Lee, who at the time was president of the student club Liberty in North Korea at USC.

Aurora NK provides tutoring, legal aid and health care assistance to North Korean refugees by pairing native English-speaking college students, lawyers and health care professionals with North Korean refugees.

Woori Lee was inspired to launch Aurora NK after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many resources for those in need.

“Woori is one of the most independently motivated and psychologically mature undergraduates I’ve ever met,” said Stephen Finlay, adjunct professor of philosophy who taught “The Meaning of Life” (PHIL 168g) course Lee attended.

“Her heart’s wish is to make a difference improving the lives of others.”

Like-minded people

Lee was a junior in high school when her family moved from Seoul to Los Angeles. Her father is an architect, and her mother is a homemaker. She has a brother, 23.

While her family established new roots in Los Angeles, Woori finished high school at a boarding school near Chicago.

“I’ve always been really interested in policy, international relations and political science,” she said. “Since I was young, I would ask questions like ‘why is the Korean peninsula divided and why are North Korean refugees discriminated against in South Korea?”

Lee joined her family in Los Angeles for college because of the high concentration of North Korean refugees here and because of USC Dornsife’s reputation as a haven for top international relations scholars.

“I was really lucky because at USC I found so many like-minded people who want to help North Korean refugees and who really want to change the world,” Lee said. “So many opportunities just came to me at USC.”

‘Second to none’

Since 2020, Aurora NK has grown into an international network of more than 600 volunteer English tutors and over 500 North Korean refugees.

In addition to tutoring services, Aurora NK provides citizenship and immigration resources for North Koreans living in the United States and South Korea.

The nonprofit also helps refugees navigate the byzantine U.S. health care system and connects them with free clinic services. Many immigrants from North Korea struggle with nightmares, PTSD and other mental health issues, Lee said.

“Woori’s a super passionate and driven person,” Jay Lee said. “Her compassion for the North Korean people is second to none, and one thing that sets her apart is that even while working tirelessly to support this underrepresented population, she’s always trying to learn more.

“Even though Woori is devoted to studying health and science, she makes a genuine effort to learn more about policy so that she can better serve others,” added Lee, who earned an MA in public diplomacy and now works at USC Dornsife’s Korean Studies Institute. “As the leader of Aurora, she’s always envisioning greater things for the organization, and she’s never afraid to dream big.”

Finlay said that in his more than 20 years of teaching general education courses, Woori Lee stands out.

“I haven’t met anyone I found more admirable than Woori, for her combination of intellectual curiosity and humanitarian dedication. I have no doubt that Woori is going to leave the world a better place than she found it.”

Doctor and advocate

Aurora NK now is active on the East Coast and in the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, India and South Korea.

Although her eyes are set on becoming a doctor, Lee’s heart always will remain on helping North Korean refugees.

Recently, she learned she was a finalist for a Samuel Huntington Award, which provides $30,000 for a public service project run by graduating seniors.

At USC, Lee also served as vice president of the WorldMed Club, a student organization that meets to understand, discuss and tackle critical issues in global medicine.

Her big goal is to help advance health care in North Korea. To that end, she plans to earn a master’s degree in public policy or public health.

She says her time at USC Dornsife has a lot to do with her drive.

“My professors at USC provided me an incredible amount of support, opportunity and guidance,” said Lee, who in her limited spare time enjoys figure skating, boxing and yoga. “The USC community really shaped me into the person I am now and always challenges me to think about what I can do to help others and just make the world a better place.”