Korean-Americans come ‘home’ to university
A year ago, 19-year-old Korean-American Choi Joo-eun chose Korea’s Yonsei University over the prestigious University of California system in her home state. Having gotten into both UC San Diego and UC Irvine, she had earned a place in two schools even many California teenagers dream of entering.
So far she has no regrets. On campus, she takes classes taught entirely in English while spending her spare time learning Korean culture and language. Off campus, Choi, who had never visited Korea before deciding to study here, keeps busy building a new network of friends and pursuing her dream of working for the United Nations one day.
“I was born and brought up in the U.S., but I wanted to live and study overseas, in particular in my parents’ home country,” said Choi, who is now a sophomore. “I want to work for an international organization. Various experiences here in Korea will help me achieve my goal.”
While it is well known that many Koreans opt out of the highly competitive race to get into a top local university like Yonsei for an American university, an increasing number of Korean-Americans and overseas-educated Koreans are heading in the opposite direction.
Expanding their horizons beyond the local market, two prominent universities, Yonsei and Ewha Womans University, have already established independent international units ― Yonsei’s Underwood International College and Ewha’s Scranton College ― that recruit international students and offer an English-language curriculum.
According to Underwood’s public relations officer Riah Yoo, the school, which opened its doors in 2006, has about 350 students, more than 50 of them Korean-Americans or Koreans who were educated in American primary and secondary schools. In addition, there are eight Korean-Americans and 56 overseas-educated Korean students enrolled in Ewha’s Scranton College, according to its public relations office.
Officials of the two schools periodically head to the U.S. to visit high schools, particularly in the Los Angeles area, to recruit students. “Some students have gained admission to the top U.S. schools, such as UC Berkeley and Cornell, but they decided to enter Yonsei University,” said Michael Kim, vice president of Underwood College. “After they are trained here for four years, any company, particularly big international firms, will want to hire them.”
Following the lead of the two schools, both of which were founded
by American missionaries in the 19th century, other leading Korean universities are getting into the hunt for prospective students in the United States. Officials from Korea University went to the United States last October to hold recruiting fairs targeting Korean and Korean-American high school students in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The university plans to send more recruiters to the United States this year, along with officials from Sogang, Ewha Womans, Hanyang, Sungkyunkwan and Chung-Ang universities for a joint Korean college fair in three cities: Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.
In order to attract Korean-Americans, the schools have decided to accept American Scholastic Aptitude Test scores as a basis for admission. “To keep pace with globalization, we want to recruit competitive students in the United States,” said Park Yoo-sung, the director of admissions at Korea University. “Studying in Korea will give them a good chance for a bright future.”
Like students anywhere, the Korean-American scholars say they are using their time here to become more competitive, with an eye on their careers.
Being in a country that they have a deep connection with, they also try to learn to speak Korean and to understand their own family heritage and identity. “After finishing all of my courses from elementary school to high school in the United States, I made it to Korea,” said Underwood sophomore Kim Jee-hye, who gave up on the University of Michigan after one semester for Yonsei. “I am enjoying college here. I think it’s the best way for me to prepare for the future.”
Most students seem to believe that a Korean higher education will pave the way for an international career, either with a large corporation or an organization like the United Nations. For them, being outside the United States is a definite advantage.
“When I graduated from high school in Glendale, California, I decided to attend Ewha Womans University because I want to work in Korea,” said Ha Tae-kyeong, who is majoring in international studies at Scranton College. “I want to get a foothold in Korea after graduation.”
Others said that becoming fluent in both Korean and English should give them a specialized edge. “If I am good at speaking Korean and understanding Korean culture, I should be a perfect fit for an international company,” said 20-year-old New Jersey native James Lee, who gave up a slot at Rutgers University for Yonsei’s Underwood. “I hope to work for the Korean branch of an international company or maybe in the U.S. branch of Samsung in the future.”
Still, regardless of Korea being the land of their parents, it is far from home, and the students have to overcome their share of hardship and difficulties in adjusting to a new country and culture.
Many of them speak of loneliness and missing their friends back home, while giving up the familiarity and international recognition that has long been associated with an American university education.
Finding the transition difficult, some students say they plan to quit their Korean experiment and head back to the United States. “It is just not easy for me to overcome my loneliness here in Korea,” said a dissatisfied Korean-American student at Yonsei, who declined to be named. “I sometimes envy my friends attending U.S. universities. I also miss my family and my favorite food so much.”
Asked to comment on how many such students find Korea difficult and plan to give up, Yonsei’s Riah Yoo just laughed quietly and refused to comment.
By Park Sang-woo Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]