Swimming against the tideMost Korean youngsters studying abroad have just one goal: Getting into a top-tier Western university.
Their families most likely moved to North America so they’d master English and have a better chance at getting into a U.S. or Canadian college. Or, their parents shipped them solo to a boarding school to spend their days in classes and their nights memorizing vocabulary lists and drafting essays for Ivy League college admissions.
But not every student who ventures overseas follows this scenario. Yoon He-ri, for one, had a different destination in mind: Korea.
“I’d like to become a diplomat. And, I realized that my learning more about Korea was an important factor in achieving my goal,” says Ms. Yoon, 17, who returned to Seoul after six years of schooling in Canada. She now is taking classes to catch up in areas where Western schools are weak; studying about the Korean language, politics and history, and boning up on her Chinese characters.
Ms. Yoon’s parents sent her to boarding school in Montreal as a sixth grader. She spent the next six years in Canada, graduating from L’Ecole Secondaire Felix-Leclerc. She’s fluent in French, English and Korean and is a whiz at negotiating and debating.
“I returned to Korea, thinking that attending a Korean university was the best way to learn more about my country,” says Ms. Yoon, who believes that resettling in Seoul will help her make connections and reconnect her with her own country’s culture.
“The best education is different for each person,” she says, noting that she gave serious consideration to schooling abroad before deciding to come home.
Ms. Yoon is hardly alone. Lee Soo-hee returned to Korea with exactly the same goal. She lived in Vancouver, Canada, for nearly six years with her mom and little brother. But after graduating from high school, the 18-year-old flew to Seoul to attend college.
She plans to enter college in the 2004 academic year. In the meantime, “I’m studying economics, politics, Korean and international law to prepare for college,” says Ms. Lee, who lives with her dad and wants to work for an international organization like the United Nations after earning her college degree.
These students are bucking the trend.
Increasingly, middle- and high-school aged Koreans are studying abroad, either alone or with their families, with the intent of continuing their studies overseas.
Yuhaksaeng are youngsters who go overseas alone, often studying at boarding schools, while their families support them from Korea. In 2001, there were close to 8,000 yuhaksaeng attending primary or secondary schools overseas. That’s more than triple the 2,259 who were studying overseas in 1995, according to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources. Most remain for college education.
Yet a small, but growing, number of college-bound Koreans are coming home because they consider Korean collegiate study the best route for success in Korea. This movement began just a few years ago.
The returning students say their decision is linked to career goals. They tend to be looking for jobs in fields that require multicultural backgrounds and foreign-language skills, but also a strong understanding of how the Korean cultural, political and corporate systems work. Many say they want to join multinational firms, diplomatic missions and international relief organizations.
Na Yu-ri has already taken that route. She grew up in Southeast Asia, attending middle school in Singapore and high school in Malaysia. But she returned to Korea in 1997, at the urging of her parents, who wanted her to attend college in her homeland so she didn’t lose touch with her roots.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Ewha Womans University, Ms. Na took a marketing position with L’Oreal Korea in Seoul. Recently, she returned to Ewha to get a masters of business administration degree. With the graduate degree, Ms. Na expects to land a marketing or consulting post in Korea or perhaps another country.
“Graduating from a university in Korea really helped me ― particularly at work,” says Ms. Na, 25, who says her collegiate years helped her build a social network.
“You really need connections, like school ties, in business,” she says. “I had no roots in Korea, but I developed them by attending a university here.”
Korean-born, foreign-educated students are finding that Korean colleges are increasingly opening their doors to Koreans who have been schooled overseas. Globalization has become a goal for many Korean universities, to the point that they’re establishing new programs and admissions quotas for foreign-educated students.
Last school year, about 20 percent of the 3,000 college freshmen admitted to special language-skills programs were students who had completed their secondary education overseas, according to several university officials. These language-skills programs are taught entirely in English and often take a broader view of subjects, studying global economics rather than Korean economics.
“The returning students mostly have good high-school records,” says Kim Cheol-young, the managing director of Sehan Academy, a private institute in Seoul that specializes in college-preparatory courses for international studies.
“These students contribute by diversifying our country’s largely homogeneous educational system,” he says. “They motivate students who have studied only in Korea in this era of globalization.”
Some universities are establishing quotas and different admissions requirements for Western-educated Korean students. Korean-educated students can also apply to these programs, but most find entry difficult since they haven’t had total immersion in an English-language environment.
If these special language-skills programs weren’t established, most Western-educated Koreans would have difficulty getting into Korean colleges since they weren’t schooled in Korean schools and wouldn’t score well on Korea’s College Scholastic Ability Test.
Korean universities have also begun accepting applicants through rolling admissions using Western standards ― including the U.S. Scholastic Aptitude Test and Western grading systems ― rather than relying on the CSAT.
Beginning in the 2004 academic year, Yonsei University will review high-school grades, standardized test scores, essays, letters of recommendation and interview results to select nearly one-third of its 3,747 rolling-admission students.
Ewha Womans University has similarly allocated 55 spots for rolling admissions for its Division of International Studies, which teaches classes in English.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies has 32 slots for first-year Koreans educated abroad in its 2004 international program. Courses are taught in English and are geared for students who have come from or plan to work overseas.
Kyunghee University’s 2004 international program has 55 slots for incoming Koreans who were educated abroad; Hanyang University has 66; Korea University has 20.
Ewha Womans University has international studies programs on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. “We first launched the Graduate School of International Studies in 1997, when globalization was the motto of the Kim Young-sam government,” says Lee In-pyo, the vice director of admissions at Ewha. “Our program produced several successful graduates, so in 2001 we decided to launch a similar program for undergraduates.”
Mr. Lee says that opening Ewha to students with strong overseas backgrounds benefits the school’s international standing.
“All international studies classes are taught in English, so it isn’t an easy program unless you’re really prepared for it,” Mr. Lee says. The school’s 2001 undergraduate class had 30 students; 55 enrolled in 2002.
Some Koreans are angered that returning Koreans are admitted under a different set of standards and don’t have to take the notoriously gruelling CSAT. Critics say returning Koreans generally are wealthy kids who didn’t score high enough on the SAT to gain admission to a top-notch American university.
“If Korean universities want to accept students who have been schooled overseas, they should have some fair standard to verify the applicants,” says Park Cheon-gyu, 27, an MBA candidate at Korea University. “After all, when Korean students apply to universities overseas, they’re judged by foreign standards. So why should Korean universities make exceptions by exempting some foreign-schooled Korean students from submitting CSAT scores?”
Mr. Park suggests that Korean universities create their own “Koreanized” tests to assess overseas students’ abilities if they don’t want to use the CSAT.
The returning students are aware of these complaints.
“I know there are people picking on the students for returning home for college,” says Ms. Yoon, who came back to Seoul earlier this year.
“I was criticized by people who said I was taking a shortcut and using a loophole to get into a good college,” she says. “But I disagree because I have skills that can’t be measured by the CSAT.”
Ms. Yoon plans to apply for the 2004 freshman class in the international studies program at Ewha Womans University.
Ms. Lee, who plans to join an international relief or governmental organization, is even more firmly determined. “It’s all about making the right decision. And, I think I made the right choice for myself by returning to Korea,” she says.
She notes that overseas-educated Koreans planning to enter the international arena are blazing new paths.
“There are no ‘how-to manuals’ to do what I want to do through schooling. Going abroad for secondary education and coming back home for college is a new thing,” Ms. Lee says. “I don’t have a role model, but someday I hope to be a role model for others.”
by Ser Myo-ja