For Love of Learning in Korea

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For Love of Learning in Korea

Walking through the streets around major colleges in Seoul these days, it is not difficult to spot foreign students among the general pedestrian traffic. In fact, there has been a surge in the number of foreign students in Korea - from only 1,989 in 1992 to 6,160 last year, according to government statistics.

How are these international students finding life in Korea? Obviously, language is a key factor in the students' overall experience. Not speaking Korean can be a significant obstacle. Take the example of Jesse Buzzie, 19, from Ontario, Canada, who arrived in Seoul last September with no knowledge of the language. "I need to study at least 6 to 7 hours just to keep up," said Mr. Buzzie, a freshman at Seoul National University studying business administration. Although he lives in a hasukjib, a private boarding house, he has not been able to make friends there. "I spend most of the day at school studying and I would really like to see other parts of Korea," he said.

Even if one has some knowledge of the language, keeping up with classes is a formidable challenge. "I would be happy if I could understand 20 percent of the lecture," said Tomohiro Amano, 22, from Aichi University, Japan, as he got ready for a free Korean language class at International House, a non-profit organization in Dongsung-dong, Seoul. Mr. Amano, an exchange student at Chung-Ang University, Seoul, had studied Korean for three years at his college, where he is a comparative literature major, but his efforts were evidently inadequate. Although he has spoken to his professors about his problems, they have not made special provisions for him. "My friends help out a lot with my homework," he said, adding that rather than bury himself in books, he tries to talk. "That is the best way to learn the language and the culture," he said.

Not having to tackle the language is a big plus for students at international studies graduate schools, where all classes are conducted in English, although their encounter with Korean culture may be somewhat restricted as a consequence. "Even at the dorm, my Korean roommate prefers to speak in English so she can practice it," said Kasia Lachowiz, 27, of Poland, studying international management at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies. The school currently has about 35 foreign students, not counting Korean-American students who number 60. In fact, Ms. Lachowiz, who majored in Korean studies in Poland, said her Korean has gotten rusty.

Other than the language barrier, what other difficulties or concerns do international students here have? "Pollution is a major problem," said Jeddy Rimmer, 22, from Australia, pursuing a master's degree at Chung-Ang University Graduate School of International Studies. "I often get quite sick and I think pollution has a lot to do with it," she said.

"The housing situation tops our list of complaints," said Gu Yeon-hee, deputy director of the international cooperation division at the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development. Because of the scarcity of dormitory space, many students turn to hasukjib where some report having difficulty adjusting to problems such as a lack of privacy. "Ideally, we'd like to have all the government-invited scholarship students live in dormitories but colleges argue that they don't have enough space even for domestic students," said Ms. Gu.

There are 215 international students from 45 countries, many from developing countries, on government scholarships. The five-year scholarship includes tuition-waiver, a monthly stipend of 600,000 won ($450), 460,000 won annually in research assistance and 350,000 won toward a year's language training.

"Students prefer dorm housing as it is relatively cheap at 200,000 won but even with our arrangement with Seoul National University whereby we have reserved 110 rooms for scholarship students, it's not enough," said Lee Seok-jae, a director at the National Institute for International Education Development, a government agency operating the scholarship program. Adding to the complaints is the difficulty finding hasukjib that will accept foreigners.

With the stipend frozen at 600,000 won a month for the next few years, officials acknowledge the difficulties faced by the students who are barred from working. "Any increase in stipend would be at the expense of number of students we take in," said Ms. Gu, an unattractive proposition, given the country's dismal record in attracting foreign students. "We had 130 Korean students go abroad in reciprocal programs last year and we should have accepted at least 100 from abroad to maintain some equity," she explained. Last year, the Korean government gave out 73 such scholarships, a figure which has been dramatically slashed to 45 this year.

Although attracting foreign students has been set as a major ministerial policy goal, it may well end up as a non-starter. "We need money to kick off the project but it is not forthcoming from the government and private universities are not willing to offer more tuition waivers," said Ms. Gu.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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