Jaewon ’27 is only a few months into his high-school career, but you’d never know it from his résumé: founder of three nonprofit organizations, Jaewon has devoted his time outside of school to advocating for his political and social passions, from climate change advocacy to cerebral palsy research. (The former saw him presenting at COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December of 2023.) Permeating every area of Jaewon’s interest, however, is his deep belief in the power of young people to create change—and if his track record is any indication, he seems to be onto something. Read on to get to know this first-year student from Jeju, South Korea, and discover the lessons he’s learned and the future he’s helping to build.
Getting to Know You
What’s bringing you joy right now?
I'm pretty excited because DMUN is planning an in-person Model United Nations conference in Mississauga, Canada. During the winter break, we got a lot of prep done for that. We have the venue and everything, so I’ve just gotta set up the committees... (More on DMUN below.)
What’s your favorite comfort food?
In Korea, we eat a lot of pork belly, which is like bacon, but not as thin. I like to put a bit of garlic and kimchi on it.
What is the most intriguing paradox?
Policymakers and politicians—they say they will change things, but I feel like we never really get to see the impacts of these promises. The paradox is that change never comes. It was really ironic, too, when I was at COP28. Basically, the conference banners all said, Let's unite, let’s act and deliver, let's bring sustainability. But there were all these private helicopters going back and forth between Dubai and the conference center, and I'm like, how are you going to promote sustainability when you're literally traveling in Rolls Royces and in private helicopters? Right now we have time, we have opportunity, but people aren't creating solutions—they’re using these moments for personal gain. They're basically procrastinating on climate change just like how we procrastinate with homework. But climate change will be much more of a dire crisis.
What was/is your favorite class (at Commonwealth or elsewhere)?
I love Ms. Budding’s Ancient History class. I was a bit of a history guy before, but my interests were more in modern history, because I felt like ancient history was not as interesting or complex. But as I came to Ms. Budding’s class, I realized ancient history actually has a lot of overlap with modern history, like how people justified political legitimacy or their different governing systems—like Alexander the Great using supply chains. Ancient history is much more interesting than I thought, and I think that's partly due to how Ms. Budding gives us a lot of freedom to discuss. When we read a primary source, we can just suggest a point to talk about. The questions she asks are in a more guiding fashion, so you have the opportunity to infuse some of your thoughts in there. I feel like that makes the concepts that you learn really fascinating.
What never fails to make you laugh?
The fake advertisements they make on Saturday Night Live.
Coffee or tea?
I used to be a coffee person, but I feel like I'm turning to tea. I'm open to other teas, but English Breakfast is my thing.
Pen or pencil?
I love pens, even though you can't erase them. I don't like how when you write with pencil, the graphite gets on your hand. Pen is just cleaner. It makes nice strokes. I personally think it's satisfying.
Fall, winter, spring, or summer?
I guess it's romanticizing winter, but back where I lived in Korea, we didn't get a lot of snow, so I've always wanted to experience snowy winter.
Life as a Commonwealth Student (and Beyond)
What was it like conducting the admissions process as an international student?
[Applying from Korea] everything was online: the interview we did via Zoom, the writing sample was done by Zoom. That was nice, and the admissions team did a really good job. But the thing is, you only really get to grasp what the school is like when you actually come to campus, and that is just a limit of being an international student. When you visit, you get to shadow a class, you get to talk with the students, you get to listen. I feel like that's a very distinctive experience that you cannot get in a virtual manner. But even though I didn't have opportunities like that, I love the school. I think it fits me well.
What was your first impression of Commonwealth and how has it mapped to your experience?
When I first looked at it online, Commonwealth felt like the school for me. My middle school was really large; we had about 400 people across three grades, and it was really hard to ask teachers questions and get feedback and just talk about different things. For my high school experience, I was really looking to interact with teachers more. At Commonwealth, you can see our average class size and how small the school is. So my first impression was like, Wow, this is the school for me, you know? It's academic, it has the small class sizes, it has the low teacher-student ratio that I dreamt of. So I felt like I found the school that was my match.
Using metrics besides grades, how do you define success in your classes?
I feel like when students first come into Commonwealth, they realize that school definitely is hard, and, you know, you might not get the grades you want to. But I feel like, at Commonwealth, the definition of success, especially freshman year, is just to understand what the teachers expect. You have to learn, and you have to grow, and you have to adapt. And in that sense, you have to understand that you're not perfect from the start. To become successful at Commonwealth, you have to be open to feedback, and you have to be willing to put that feedback into practice. Just try it, even if it doesn't work out. The teachers will help you. Freshman year, it's a very low-stakes thing. It's pass-fail, so don't worry about grades; focus on how you can improve academically and adapt to the environment.
Let's talk about your nonprofit work. What inspired you to start these organizations? What keeps you involved?
It started when I was a sixth grader. I loved Model UN, and it was during COVID, so most of the conferences were online. I got to meet a lot of delegates who basically said the online conferences were the only opportunity for them to attend Model UN, and they were great because most of the conferences were free. But they also wanted higher academic caliber, higher quality conferences. So I was like, Okay, they want a free online conference that brings high-quality experiences, comparable to conferences organized by schools and colleges. There's a demand for it, so why don't I start it?
I started with just a couple of students I got to meet at those Model UN conferences. Our first conference in 2021 wasn't a big success; we only got thirty people. But in 2022, we expanded our staff, and we started experimenting with different marketing tools and programs, like Model Parliaments or Model Senate. Our organization grew and grew. And so, because of that, I felt like I learned the formula of how I can make these different nonprofit organizations to create impact in my own community.
Last year, I wanted to expand on that idea to help more people. That's when I started the Katija Hyoungjoo Neuber Fund, named after my cousin with cerebral palsy. Many people have assumptions and stereotypes about cerebral-palsy patients, and I learned about discrimination and how people with cerebral palsy suffer, especially in my home country. I felt inspired to raise money and invest in organizations that do research and bring awareness about cerebral palsy, because I’d seen firsthand what my cousin was experiencing from the day she was born. We even had to fly her to Boston to get a brain surgery; it must have been a devastating journey for her—she was just one year old. For patients like her to feel less pain, technology needs to evolve, but also, our perception of cerebral palsy also needs to improve as a society, which is why we're investing in these two areas, research and awareness.
My third nonprofit I started this June, when I moved to Boston. My first nonprofits taught me a lot: I got a lot of experience running these different organizations and learning how to do marketing, how to do finances, how to do fundraising. I was like, Maybe I can help other youth start their own nonprofits. So that's why I created YouthCubed, which is a consulting firm where we help selected nonprofits or enterprises with marketing, fundraising, partnerships, and other areas. I'm basically teaching the lessons I've learned in my nonprofits to other people, so they don't make the mistakes I made and so people across the world, especially youth, can make more of an impact.
What’s your advice for other young people who want to start their own nonprofit or get involved in an existing nonprofit?
Success doesn't come instantly. You just have to have the confidence to start. It could be just your friend group, maybe raising money in a bake sale or something. You can grow slowly and learn the lessons the organization will offer you. Be open to feedback.
Second, I'd say don't be afraid to connect with a lot of people. You have to deliver your message. When you're running a nonprofit, communicating with local governments and adults in these professional worlds who are much older than you is quite daunting. But a lot of people are willing to help when you're working for a cause.
And the third thing is you have to be passionate, because when you run a nonprofit, it is a big time commitment. Sometimes your work doesn't go the way you want; you might have some conflicts with your coworkers, you’re going to make mistakes, and sometimes you might want to quit. But what's really important is passion. You’re doing this to help people. And I feel like staying true to that value is really important.
What was your goal for your COP28 speech? What was the main takeaway you wanted people to leave with?
We wanted to deliver our perspective about youth activism and climate change, not only as an organization, but just what we feel, frankly, as young people. Some people regard youth as ignorant to what's happening in our world, but I feel like a lot of youth care and have the capacity to make change; they just need the opportunity. That's what we were trying to deliver at COP28: we know what's happening, we want to make change—just give us a medium to do so. That could be government grants to help youth nonprofits or opportunities to connect with policymakers. I feel like if more policymakers understood and recognized the importance of what youth are doing and provided us with different opportunities to contribute at a national or international level, we would make great change.
Recently, the United Nations actually approved a resolution that recognizes Model UN by youth as a critical part of establishing and advocating for their mission. That’s great but we have a long way to go. There are many youth nonprofits that have to close their doors, because they just didn't get enough support. Maybe they had this grand idea, but nobody was willing to invest in it or help them, and I feel like that’s genuinely sad. Who knows what those ideas could grow into if someone trusted them and believed in their potential?
How has Commonwealth shaped this work that you’re doing?
What I've really learned at Commonwealth is how to use time efficiently. Back in my middle school, I could finish all of my homework at school, and I never really felt challenged by academics. But when I came to Commonwealth, I felt this academic challenge. I learned how to work efficiently and just be very time-conscious, so I could devote enough time to my life outside of school. I feel like it's really important to learn to manage your time at a very young age. That's a valuable lesson Commonwealth has taught me: work smart, basically.