The challenges of Korean high school are well-known by anyone who is familiar with the country’s education system. The years prior to high school, however, do not receive as much publicity. Four middle school students from Gakri Middle School in Korea’s North Chungcheong province shared their typical school day schedule, their plans for the future, and their thoughts on the Korean education system as they prepare to move on to high school. All four students—Da Yeong, Hyeong Seok, Su Hyeon, and Yu Rim—have previously studied abroad in primarily English-speaking countries, contributing to their perspectives on their education.
All four students reported different daily schedules. Middle school in Korea typically begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. Su Hyeon, who lives very close to Gakri Middle School, noted that she wakes up less than an hour before school starts. Yu Rim, however, wakes up as early as 6:00 in the morning.
“I come to school really early. I’m always the first in my class,” Yu Rim said. “It’s just become a sort of habit.”
All of the students except for Yu Rim attend hagwon, or extra academy classes, after school. Each student’s day ends after 10:00 p.m, sometimes not until midnight or later.
Even in middle school, students feel the looming pressure of the suneung, or the College Scholastic Ability Test that all students take in their third year of high school.
Regarding the Korean education system, Hyeong Seok commented, “Students are all just studying for one test. We’re just memorizing things—not things that will be helpful in real life.”
The other students echoed Hyeong Seok’s sentiments, but Da Yeong also noted a positive aspect of the Korean education system.
“I think the Korean education system is very organized,” she said. “Students can study in a passionate learning environment.”
As in many Korean schools, classes at the co-ed Gakri Middle School are gender-segregated. Yu Rim and Su Hyeon were quick to express their fondness of gender-segregated classes. Yu Rim said that without any boys in the classroom, girls feel that they can be “crazier.”
Su Hyeon remarked, “I feel like I’m class with my sisters. But it doesn’t make sense to have boys and girls in a school and split up the classes. They should have only all-girls and all-boys [schools].”
Looking ahead, all four students expressed a mix of nerves and excitement in preparation for high school. While the prospect of a fresh start has given the students something to look forward to, the academic rigor of high school may take some adjustment. In the future, Da Yeong and Su Hyeon would like to attend universities in Korea, while Hyeong Seok and Yu Rim hope to attend college abroad.
This year, more than 50 Fulbright ETAs are volunteering to teach English to North Korean defectors (NKD) throughout the country. To better facilitate relationships with NKD students and improve ETAs’ teaching skills, the U.S. Embassy provided a substantial grant for the second annual North Korean Defector Conference.
Hosted by the Empathy Guesthouse/Daegu Hana Center, the conference took place from November 6th to the 8th. Twenty-one students, 16 staff members from the Empathy Guesthouse/Daegu Hana Center, and 34 teachers and mentors attended, including Fulbright ETAs, EPIK teachers, and English instructors from the Daegu area.
Participants listen to a lecture given by Jane Cho, the Secretary General of the Daegu Hana Center
The theme of the conference was “Painting a Brighter Tomorrow.” As part of the weekend, the students and teachers painted a mural of the world, as well as mini pictures of what peace and happiness meant to them. On Friday, November 6th, Jane Cho, the Secretary General of the Daegu Hana Center, delivered a lecture about the center’s history and mission, as well as the hardships that defectors endure when they flee from the North and resettle in the South. The next morning, the teachers attended workshops about teaching methods and discussed resources for teaching North Korean defectors.
When the students arrived on Saturday afternoon, the teachers and students participated in artistic projects like the mural. All participants in the conference spent Sunday morning on a cultural excursion to the famous Daegu Market. The Hana Center finished the conference with a few personal stories from defectors.
Students create artwork with drawings and quotes of what ‘peace’ means to them
Margaret Cleveland, a 2015-2016 ETA and an NKD coordinator in Daegu, said, “I really enjoyed seeing the whole event come together. It was fun to see the mentor and student interactions, as well as see the mural come together as a whole. Because I personally spend a lot of time at the Empathy Guesthouse, I am excited to get to see the finished product and benefits from it throughout my time in Korea. I know our NKD students are going to take a lot of pride in the hard work they put in to make it and it will be a fun reminder for them of the camp!“
The FKAR team had the privilege of interviewing former junior researchers and ETAs working in a variety of fields, including academia, consulting, medicine, the foreign service, and community development. Dr. Balbina Hwang, Brigid Otieno, Megan Powers, Scott Purdy, and Dr. Sumit Shah generously offered to share their insights on the Fulbright experience and its impact on the work they do today.
Dr. Balbina Hwang, Junior Researcher ‘98
What is your current occupation? I teach graduate and undergraduate courses in international relations and Asia-related topics at Georgetown and American University (in Washington D.C.).
What is your biggest piece of advice for a current junior researcher? Be open and flexible to new intellectual ideas and analytical approaches in your research. You will discover new inspiration in places and experiences you never expected.
How did your experience as a junior researcher impact your life’s work? The year I spent in Korea fundamentally changed the focus and contours of my subsequent research and scholarly interests, in ways I was not even able to realize at the time.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as junior researcher? Overcoming others’ (not just Koreans, but everyone I encountered in Korea) preconceived notions about me, as a younger woman, ethnically Korean, American (citizen).
What personal achievement are you most proud of? The honor and opportunity to be able to serve in public service for the U.S. Government (at the U.S. State Department). It was a privilege to be able to gain invaluable insights, and it was a humbling experience.
Scott Purdy, ETA ’00
What is your current occupation? I currently work as a strategy consultant. I help companies develop their corporate strategy and make M&A decisions.
What is your biggest piece of advice for a current ETA? This will be one of the most unique experiences you have in your lifetime. Don’t waste the opportunity to travel and experience life in different parts of the world.
How did your experience as an ETA impact your life’s work? I’d say the Fulbright experience helps broaden your perspective on diversity.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an ETA? Looking back on it, nothing jumps out besides constantly being out of your comfort zone. It’s great life experience for your future career.
What moment do you remember most vividly from your grant year? The group doing cannonballs at a pool party at the U.S. Ambassador’s house…not sure that was quite the expected decorum.
Megan Powers, ETA ‘00
What is your current occupation? International Program Officer at The McKnight Foundation
What is your biggest piece of advice for a current ETA? Take advantage of the flexibility of the program to gain professional, cultural and academic experience. Get involved in your region’s school district. Take a course in a subject that interests you (calligraphy, tae kwon do). Do some research. Create some art. You may not have another period of your life that offers such flexibility and learning potential!
How did your experience as an ETA impact your life’s work? Honed my skills in curriculum development, presentation and training, intercultural awareness, and research. All of these became the backbone of my career.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an ETA? Gender issues are prevalent everywhere, but especially in South Korea
Who is your favorite hero/heroine in world history? I’m a big fan of Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous Guatemalan woman who is a champion of human rights and who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Sumit Shah, ETA ‘04
What is your current occupation? I am a physician completing my fellowship training in medical oncology and hematology at Stanford University Hospital, and I work with a digital health technology start-up in San Francisco, called Grand Rounds.
What is your biggest piece of advice for a current ETA? Embrace being outside of your comfort zone for a year. It’s rare to have opportunities where we struggle to communicate, struggle to navigate, and struggle to build and maintain relationships. Through this struggle we reflect, grow, and learn to appreciate the diversity around us.
How did your experience as an ETA impact your life’s work? As an ETA ten years ago, I was able to witness Korea in the midst of a rapid economic and technological transformation. With this rise of urbanization came a shift in the national healthcare burden characterized by chronic, non-communicable diseases. I am very interested in the utilizing digital technology to provide access to chronic disease care and expertise in resource-poor settings in the international community.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an ETA? Being a vegetarian was somewhat difficult in Korea. My host mom made me quite a few peanut butter and egg sandwiches. I never had the heart to tell her it wasn’t the best combination.
What do you remember most vividly from your grant year? By far, the best part of the ETA year was coming away with a group of friends who remain some of my closest to this day. We have spoken at each other’s weddings, visited each other’s children, and occasionally get together just to keep up our noraebang skills. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of such a great group of fellow ETAs.
Brigid Otieno ETA ’09 – ‘11
What is your current occupation? Foreign Service Officer – U.S. Department of State Vice Consul American Citizen Services, Consular Section U.S. Embassy Rome Rome, Italy
What is your biggest piece of advice for a current ETA? Looking back at my experience with the Fulbright Program in South Korea, I encourage current ETAs to:
Learn Korean. If I could change anything, I would have started learning Korean before starting my grant year.
Get a hobby (or continue to do something that you love).
Engage with your community.
How did your experience as an ETA impact your life’s work? My ETA experience was a transformative experience that influenced my personal, educational, and professional life. Professionally, working in South Korea under the auspices of the Korea Fulbright Commission was valuable for me. It helped me to think not only about what fields and practical experience most draw me but also about the type of working environment in which I work the best. Teaching in Korea with access to Ambassador Kathleen Stephens and other Foreign Service officers opened doors to many new and amazing opportunities. I was also competitive for a lot of jobs, fellowships and graduate schools. Personally, teaching and living in Korea gave me an improved sense of self-confidence, leadership development, in addition to relationship-building skills culminating in personal growth.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an ETA? The intersection of being an African-American woman and living in Korea was frustrating. I had to constantly answer questions about my heritage, challenge perceptions of blackness and racial stereotypes. In the end, my identity proved to be an advantage for me throughout my time in Korea. I used my grant as a unique opportunity to educate others about my culture, and to encourage positive understanding of global diversity with my students.
What moment do you remember most vividly from your grant year? My most memorable was my first day of school at the welcoming assembly as I stood on a stage and introduced myself in Korean to the entire school. I remember feeling a wide range of emotions in that moment including nervousness, anxiety and fear. My co-teacher gave me a thumbs-up as I walked off the stage and I knew that this was going to be a great year.
Seventy-five miles south of Seoul, you will be greeted by a newly developing (but soon to be burgeoning) metropolis. Sejong is currently a sea of apartment buildings, construction, and a 3.5 kilometer, horseshoe-shaped government complex. Though I may be biased, the best parts of Sejong are the 12 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in different elementary, middle, and high schools, who call Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City their home. We like to think of ourselves as urban pioneers.
This is the second year Fulbright has placed ETAs in this new city. Sejong was created to become the new administrative capital of South Korea. Since 2005, thirty-six different government ministries have moved to Sejong.
Sejong is growing rapidly and plans to have over 300,000 residents by the end of 2020. By Korean population standards, this is a relatively small number of people. The smaller city size, however, is something that the current Sejong “squad” looks forward to returning home to after traveling to different parts of Korea on the weekends. Grace Lee, a 2015-2016 ETA at Mirea Elementary School, testifies to the comfort of Sejong City saying the smaller population is something that she likes.
“When I come back to Sejong, its feels like home, without the hustle and bustle of big cities.”
The Sejong Squad has taken full advantage of living close to each other in the same city by meeting up for dinners to talk, eat pizza, and share their experiences at their different schools.
“Being surrounded by other ETAs has been one of the highlights of my grant year,” said Tess Zaretsky, ETA at Dodam Middle School. “I feel so lucky to have such awesome, supportive people to meet up with every week.”
Every year, Fulbrighters come to Korea and create and expand upon extracurricular clubs and programs that strive to maximize their impact in the classroom and within their larger community. These initiatives address a wide range of topics, from North Korean Defector tutoring to youth leadership to ETA wellness and mental health. One relatively young organization, the Korea Bridge Initiative (KBI), continues to tackle a persistent and timely issue within the country: economic inequality and education.
South Korea boasts some of the most impressive academic indicators in the world. Its students consistently perform above the average of other OECD countries in reading, science, and math. Indeed, Korea takes the education of its students seriously; the government spends about 8% of its GDP on public education, compared with an overall OECD average of 6%.  Most everyone within this system—parents, students, and teachers—are fixated on a 8-hour multiple choice college entrance exam, the suneung, that all students take during the final third year of high school.
The importance of education within Korean society extends far beyond the public sector, and a notable feature of a South Korean education is its heavy reliance on private education. Private education, notably that provided at cram schools known as hagwons, accounts for a significant portion of consumer spending (around $15 billion), with many students enrolling at an early age, some as soon as elementary school.  Unfortunately, in such a hyper-competitive environment, lower-income students who cannot afford to enroll at private academies face an uphill battle.
Founded in 2013 in Jeju by ETAs Taxi Wilson and Jessica Zucker, KBI strives to shrink the opportunity gap of lower-income students by providing them with educational opportunities through 8-10 week long semesters that focus on global learning, creativity, and the English language. KBI is comprised of several independently operating chapters, each one staffed by Fulbright ETAs, as well as other volunteers. In addition to these programs, in 2015 the KBI Scholarship Fund, a merit-based scholarship that helps Korean students partake in the summer Fulbright English Immersion Program (formerly Camp Fulbright), was founded. In the end, 2.8 million won ($2,450) was raised to support the participation of 3 students at the camp. “Last spring, my favorite memory was announcing the KBI Scholarship recipients.” said ETA Mat Goldberg. “One of my students received 1 of 3 KBI scholarships to attend the 2-week program. His reaction was priceless, he was so excited and honored to be chosen.”
Because KBI operates in an environment where grantees cyclically come and go from the country, the very survival of the organization depends on the successful transfer of leadership, consistent volunteer turnout, and sufficient student demand. These constraints often translate to changing cities or starting up chapters in entirely new areas. Currently, KBI operates in three cities: Jeju, Mokpo, and Cheongju.
Run by ETAs Amanda Tse (2014-15) and Korey Morgan (2013-14), KBI Jeju operates in both Jeju City on the north side of the island and in Seogwipo in the south. Volunteers have a lot on their plate as they administer two simultaneous semesters; on top of providing classes for high school students, KBI Jeju also services middle school students through its new “Junior” program. Class topics often run beyond the scope of a typical hagwon, including acting improvisation, the Spanish language, and a pen pal project with a high school in Indonesia. “At KBI, students have the unique opportunity to engage in alternative types of learning,” said both coordinators. “They get to interact with new native English teachers from diverse backgrounds, to interact with new native English teachers from diverse backgrounds, to gain new role models in the Korean college students who volunteer, and to learn about topics they may not have exposure to otherwise.”
As with the other chapters, there are only a limited number of ETAs in each placement city, and sustaining leadership is a constant battle. “Without dedication from all Jeju ETAs, it’s very difficult to sustain, let alone continue to expand.” To combat any shortcoming in ETA participation, Tse and Morgan have reached out to non-ETA sources of support, such as from their provincial Office of Education, from universities, and from other venues.
Despite the substantial commitments of time and energy that each volunteer gives to their students, the payoff has been well worth it. “The past semester was incredibly rewarding and we were so impressed with the experiences that the students and volunteers had made for themselves. KBI is a program from which you get as much from as you put into it. We all put in a lot and it showed.”
KBI Jeollanam-do, which used to operate out of Gwangju, is now run in the southernmost city of Mokpo by ETAs Erin Slocum (2014-15) and Mat Goldberg (2014-15). “Moving to Mokpo proved to be an incredibly valuable decision for the program,” recalled Slocum, “We had over 50 students sign up for the Fall semester from 7 different schools, with between 25-30 students attending each week.” Slocum, a veteran of City Year, worked at a Boston non-profit before coming to Korea, where she addressed the opportunity gap for children who lived in homeless shelters by providing them with early education. “ I vividly remember sitting in a supplemental talk about KBI during orientation going ‘Oh my god, this is exactly it. I have to be a part of this program.”
ETA volunteer in Mokpo Kathleen Griffin poses with students
KBI’s mission strongly resonated with Goldberg as well. “I decided to pursue KBI because I believe all students deserve access to equal opportunities despite their economic background. I realized KBI is a unique organization that creates a space for students to connect with teachers and peers, all in the pursuit of learning.”
Coordinator Mat Goldberg with his students
Though the primary purpose of KBI is to provide a formal experience akin to that of a hagwon, activities in Mokpo often playfully diverged from the norm. This, Slocum says, was a deliberate choice, considering the fact that Korean high school students already lead stressful and academically rigorous lives, many of whom stay at school for 14 hours a day. “KBI is an opportunity to write creatively. To speak with friends, other students, and foreigners in English. To see English as fun, not just a test subject, but a language they can use.”
“One of my favorite things this semester was our KBI Halloween Party,” Goldberg reflected. “We had students compete in a mummy race and it was hilarious to watch students working together to cover their teammates in toilet paper.”
KBI Jeollanam-do participants with their certificates of completion
KBI Cheongju, the newest addition to the program, was started in October and is run by ETA Kelsey Hagenah (2014-15). Despite starting later in the year than the Mokpo and Jeju chapters, the positive effects of the program on students’ attitudes towards English was visible. “One of my favorite memories so far was our final class,” said Hagenah. “We ended a little early and just had some time to hang out, relax, and chat. It was great to see the students mixing together and chatting with us with more confidence than when we had started. In the end they were conversing much more freely.”
If you’d like more information, or would like to help or contribute to the organization, please feel free to contact KBI on their facebook page here.
As the 2015-2016 ETA cohort nears the close of their first semester teaching in Korea, FKAR wanted to highlight one of Fulbright’s most inspiring teachers: Maeve Wall. Exuding a signature aura of warmth, acceptance, and encouragement within and beyond the classroom walls, Maeve’s life and pedagogical philosophies are simply galvanizing. She was kind enough to share some of her background and thoughts with FKAR in the following interview.
FKAR: Hey Maeve, tell us a little about yourself~
I’m from Columbus, Ohio and went to undergrad at Northwestern University. I studied English Literature, and was obsessed with it (Go Henry James!). I started teaching while in college through the Jumpstart Program for Young Children which works in high needs preschools. Additionally, I had a few teaching internships including a stint in East Harlem at an Independent charter school, thanks to which I fell in love with New York. After school, I moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn and became a Kindergarten and First Grade teacher through Teach For America. I was lucky enough to get my Masters Degree in Childhood Education at Fordham University during that time.
FKAR: What’s been one of your favorite memories this grant year?
I love figuring out how to work with kids who don’t speak your language. Those moments when students “get it” – amidst language barriers and diverse cultural backgrounds – are immensely rewarding. I think a favorite illustrative moment was working with my after school class and trying, shakily, to talk about gender roles. The students were asked to make a list of things boys can and can’t do before discussing where those ideas came from and which ones they might reconsider or question. When it was time for the girls to make a poster about what girls can do, (I was thinking along the lines of “build things” or “do math,”) one student asked me, “Can we just say girls can do everything?” Yes, WIN.
Each month, FKAR talks with program alumni to learn about how they are pursuing their careers, personal interests, and how their Fulbright Korea experience has prepared them for their next steps.
This month, FKAR reached out to Zoe Gioja, a 2014-15 ETA in Mokpo, who is working on a newly-founded initiative aimed at connecting Fulbright ETAs across the globe. Zoe offers insight for current grantees while explaining her ideas behind Fulbridge.
When talking about my school, Naju Technical High School, co-teachers, community members, and other students would make comments such as “Students just don’t care,” “Your students are dirty,” and “We have bad English.” However, I was determined to challenge this detrimental narrative and encourage students to see themselves beyond societal stereotypes and be proud of who they are.
This vision inspired my community FKAF grant and enabled me to work with students to create cross-cultural communication through photography between my placement school and a local school in the United States, Cummings High School. Through my project, students in South Korea and the United States created self-introductory videos, asked and answered questions about each country, and captured and shared photos in response to the question, “What is important to you?”
The project process was challenging. My students felt overwhelmed at the level of English required and we struggled communicating fully with the U.S. students. Nevertheless, the project enabled my students to delve deeper into understanding who they are as people and what it means to be cultural ambassadors and teachers. Most importantly, the project enabled my students to grow in confidence and be proud of their identities. Ultimately, I was amazed and humbled by the opportunity to see the insides of my students’ minds through the photos taken. This project would not have been possible without the grant money to plan a video viewing party, print pictures, and share the students’ work with the school in a small exhibit.
Mat Goldberg is a 2014-2016 ETA who teaches in Naju, Jeollanam-do.
Each year, Fulbright Korea hires a Program Coordinator and Executive Assistant to manage the affairs, events, and wellbeing of ETAs and Researchers. Recently, we were able to sit down with Program Coordinator (PC) Amelea Kim and Executive Assistant (EA) Ben Harris to get to know them better.
FKAR: Tell us about yourself.
Amelea: My name is Amelea Kim, and I’m fromSaint Louis, MO. I have a pretty big family (one of five kids), and I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio and majored in East Asian Studies. While I was there, I got super into libraries, and I want to go to grad school for Library and Information Science. After I graduated, I went to China for two years and taught English at an agricultural university, which was really fun. Then I came to Korea with Fulbright and taught at an elementary school in Hwacheon before becoming the Program Coordinator for this year.
Ben: My name is Ben Harris from Detroit, Michigan, and I’ve lived in Michigan almost my whole life until graduation. I taught at a high school in Korea for a year as a Fulbright ETA before moving to the Seoul Office to be the Executive Assistant. I have two younger brothers. I don’t like cats or fish. I like to run, eat, and play piano.
FKAR: What aspects of this grant year will be different than in previous years?
Amelea: Individually, this year will be quite a change from last year in that it will involve a lot more self-directed work. Compared to last year where I came in and everyone was already in a groove, and I had to adjust to my coworkers’ pace, this year I can go in and set my own pace and goals.
As a program, we are bigger this year (121 ETAs) with a lot of new placement schools. We also have a lot really cool ideas that are developing this year, and organizations that have already been established are expanding out into many placement cities.
FKAR: Can you give us some insight on the Junior Researcher class this year? What are they like (topics, interests, etc.)?
Ben: There are a lot of topics being researched that are really important. Some of the projects this year are based on North Korean issues, disability rights, and the elderly. Overall, the research this year strikes me as incredibly timely and important.
FKAR: How is your role as PC/EA connected with Fulbright Korea alumni (if at all)?
Amelea: Perhaps not so much with alumni, but definitely with the current class. In terms of how I’m connected to FKAR, I definitely see FKAR being a valuable resource throughout the grant year and beyond. I want to aid and encourage in any way that I can, although I don’t know how (laughter). I am here to connect people when I can and help people out with information, and anything else that might be useful.
Ben: Connecting people is very important and useful. In terms of FKAR (what Amelea said), I think this is really important for the community.
FKAR: Is there anything in particular that you would like to see the FKAR Committee expand upon this year?
Amelea: It would be cool if internships or shadowing opportunities were highlighted, such as with people in similar fields or similar interests. Making those connections happen more would be very useful for ETAs, and I think it’s a great opportunity for alumni and current grantees to connect. It’s also great to see people giving back to Fulbright and creating a strong community that others can use to get inspired, get feedback, and get ideas.
Ben: In general, I like to see two main things. First, I like to hear about what alumni are doing, and two, I like to hear about available opportunities. I love it when people post internships or jobs on the alumni Facebook page – even things that I’d never consider applying for. It gives me confidence and makes me feel good to know that there are people in the network who are thinking about and looking out for other people.
FKAR: What do you hope to achieve in terms of progress this grant year?
Amelea: We’re trying to revamp our lesson database and make it better than what it is right now (laughter). That’s something we’re thinking about but is not yet complete. It’s a work in progress!
Ben: A major goal of ours this year is to improve the resources available to grantees to make them more accessible and efficient.
FKAR: How can we better incorporate the researchers into ETA events?
Amelea: Organizing more meet-ups for researchers to go to. Since most of the researchers this year are based in Seoul, it would be cool to do a monthly meet-up where FKAR organizes some sort of event (like laser tag because laser tag is FUN!) and invites a bunch of people to attend. This might be great for forum weekends – people come to the forum, and then do something that night or the next day to all hang out together!