An elementary school social studies teacher asks her students to raise their hands if their parents plan to vote in the next election. All, but one, raise their hands, as Catherine Cho, born in South Korea and brought to America at the age of four, is “left out of the expectation.”
At that moment, it became her mission to connect not only culturally, but also politically, with her peers, as well as with her country.
Although others eventually have found themselves with that same goal, Catherine’s path to such an aspiration was not a typical one. Catherine ate her first American dinners in a struggling neighborhood in North Charleston, S.C., seated around a large, empty carton of ramen, her family’s makeshift dining-table. Her initial American experience was scored by the cacophony of her eclectic neighbors: the kitchen knife was never far from the front door, as her parents guarded their home.
“We were really poor when we first moved here,” Catherine said. “It was a long, interesting path to get adjusted, let alone comfortable.”
Over the years, her parents established and advanced within their occupations and the family bounced around the Carolinas, going from North Charleston to Hannah, S.C., back to Charleston, to Charlotte, N.C., and ending up in Chapel Hill, N.C.. During this time, Catherine became an expert witness to the societal, cultural and political temperament of her new American neighbors.
And after that fateful day on which her social studies teacher pointed out the distinction between Catherine and her classmates, the South Korean native took on a vehement passion for voting, elections and the rights associated with living in America.
“I was so excited about the right to vote as a kid, and thought that some others took it for granted,” she said. “When my parents and I got our citizenship, I was thrilled that they would have the chance to vote; the idea had always felt foreign until we owned our rights. We even practiced with fake ballots before their first election.”
Catherine wanted to further enmesh herself in the study of the relationship between a government and the governed, and how civil and civic rights might best be communicated and advanced. Not satisfied with mere objective observance, she participated in North Carolina Girls State, North Carolina’s Teen Court and the youth council of her church.
Through these channels, Catherine came to learn of Inspire U.S., an organization whose goal is to ignite the youth vote. Her volunteer work gave her the opportunity to connect her peers to the practice, politics and value of voting.
“Overall, the mindset amongst a lot of young people is apathetic toward voting; there’s no real motive presented that gets our generation inspired to vote,” she said. “This leads to us being an under-involved generation, which would keep us from fighting for the chances we have and could build on in making our voices heard.”
The state of North Carolina has restricted the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, narrowing the window of time to do so, a policy that Catherine and the Inspire team have begun to work against.
In her work with Inspire North Carolina, Catherine has focused on several Civic Action Projects, which include informing her peers and the larger public population of the issues within the state’s juvenile age of jurisdiction, its problems with human trafficking, as well as tackling the complex challenge of inspiring her peers to vote, and to vote knowledgably.
“We’re working on a culture,” Catherine said. “Some of us in North Carolina feel like the state has yet to transition to where it’s headed, and pushing our peers to help get the state to that point is our goal. We’re focused on educating our electorate and getting them to polling places.”
To execute this “culture,” Catherine has made personal connections with young voters, “trying to give voting a face, and to make their vote about them.”
Catherine said, “Part of the reason why members of our generation don’t care is that they don’t know how their vote might affect them personally. I want to connect their realities with their vote, and how the vote might improve their individual ways of life.”
The mission of Inspire U.S. has been to create a non-partisan push to register Catherine’s generation to vote and to prepare uninformed voters with resources that will help them become passionate, knowledgeable voters. The group has “recruited the best and brightest to be the quarterbacks of a movement which promote widespread awareness and long-term sustainability,” according to North Carolina Program Coordinator, Jack Bates.
“Catherine excels,” Jack said. “She’s dedicated and active, and she wants to have meaningful conversations which connect people to each other, and connect people to their government.”
For Catherine, Inspire U.S. is another means by which she might connect to the world around her, as well as hone her personal prospects. These days, when it comes to voting, Catherine is the first one to raise her hand.
“I’ve really connected to the idea that together, we young people can make a huge difference in our own lives, as well as the lives of others,” Catherine said. “Maybe I’m just really overstimulated, but I hope that’ll help others to get excited, too.”