Mother's passion for education a lesson in tenacity

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Mother's passion for education a lesson in tenacity

Seven years ago, Jungshill Lee had a comfortable life. She was married to a man who ran a textile firm in Seoul and would soon retire. The couple had two teenage daughters who were studying abroad. She had a good job as the Seoul bureau chief for a Hong Kong-based magazine.

Things changed dramatically when she decided to take on a cause: Saving a small boarding school in England where her daughters had studied.

Her goal was to transform the school into a place where foreign students go to prepare to enter English boarding schools. The school, Felixstowe International College, is on England's southeast coast, in the town of Felixstowe, near the city of Ipswich.

In 1995, Ms. Lee learned that Felixstowe, where her daughters, Ye-rin and Chae-rin, had attended a few years before, was experiencing several financial troubles. "Letters were sent to the parents that it was going to shut down," she says.

A parents meeting was called to discuss ways to save the school. More and more the answer seemed to be to close Felixstowe College's doors.

Finally, Ms. Lee had an idea. She had always had a passion for education. "I remember a teacher telling me that I should become someone who gives scholarships." Instead, she became someone who owns a school.

She asked a Felixstowe administrator if she could buy the institution. Before long, Felixstowe was hers at a price of 750,000 pounds ($1.15 million).

Though she and her husband, Lee Pyung-woo, were well-off, they clearly did not have that sort of money lying around. Back to work she went. In time, she was able to collect the amount, along with spiritual support, from donors such as the Anglican Church in Seoul, the Korean community in Britain, the Korean diplomatic community and even from a Protestant priest in Britain.

Sister Catherine, a nun of the Anglican Church in England who had an interest in the school, said, "Ms. Lee visited me at the time, but a nun cannot really provide financial support. So I promised to give her the only thing I could, which is prayer."

Soon Felixstowe College had a new name, adding "International," At its reincarnation with Ms. Lee at the helm the school had 17 students from 13 countries. By the following year it had 38 students. Though enrollment was low, Ms. Lee was undaunted.

Felixstowe's health took a hit in late 1997 with the onset of the Asian financial crisis. Much of its support from Korea was cut off. Paying teachers became a problem and the school piled up debts. At one point the phones were disconnected. Ms. Lee was forced to lay off some teachers, and the principal left. The stress began to get to her.

"That was about the time I developed the habit of skipping dinner," Ms. Lee said. Because Felixstowe was a boarding school, the staff and the students ate meals in the same room ?Ms. Lee began to avoid dinners because she didn't want to show her anguished face in front of the students.

The Anglican Church continued to help out by lending its stage for a charity concert to assist the school. Then the British government did some negotiating with the creditors.

Ms. Lee, now 53, still hasn't resolved her school's financial problems, but she said the situation is improving. Enrollment is still low, at 19 students, ages 11 to 16. The one constant is that the school's top priority is education. That integrity has won Ms. Lee the respect of the local community. "One person in the town told me I was the most tenacious lady he had ever met," she said.

by Lee Ho-jeong

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