Written by Sam Moser (ETA 2014-16)
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.”
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.”
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 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.