School days a blast after all these years

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School days a blast after all these years

Suh Im-bong, 67, has cooked pumpkin and clam chowder soups thousands of times before, but now she is doing it for credit. Not that she never received a thank you from her husband and three sons for making sure they were well nourished. She has their gratitude and now basks in their admiration for doing something rare for a 67-year-old -- going to college.
Ms. Suh is studying Western Cooking at Ewha Womans University. On a recent morning, the entire class of twenty sophomores is wearing white robes and scarves, but Ms. Suh stands out with her impeccable make-up and regal air. “I got married just one semester short of graduating during my senior year so all I have to do is attend one chapel session and take this three-credit course to get my degree,” she says.
When Ms. Suh first was a student at Ewha, married women were not considered for admission and women who got married while enrolled where required to leave the university. That had been the iron-clad rule since 1946 at the 117-year-old school until the ban was rescinded last January. This fall, twenty married women from age 34 to 71 have re-enrolled to finish studies interrupted by their decision to enter matrimony.
As the other students in the class gather potatoes, onions and chunks of meat for their creations, Ms. Suh cleans the basin area and cooking table. She watches Yun Hae-seon, 20, shed tears as she peels onion after onion and says, “The best way not to cry is to peel the onion under running tap water.” The other girls listen intently as Ms. Suh offers tips on how to prepare the soups.
The girls are polite and gracious to Ms. Suh, and she is, in turn, caring, calling them by their first names and patting them on the back. The scene is like watching a grandmother teach her grandchildren to cook. Ms. Suh laughs and says, “I feel younger just being with these girls.” They smile and call her sunsaengnim, or teacher.
“Honestly speaking, taking this course is like a joke to me. I have cooked these dishes a thousand times during my 45-year marriage, so I know my stuff. I took this course because I thought it would be easy for me, but writing papers is harder than I imagined,” Ms. Suh says. “I am already worried about my graduation exam.”
Ewha’s no-marriage rule was enacted to ensure women could receive an advanced education. Confucian tradition held that a woman’s main responsibility was hearth and home, so married women found it virtually impossible to continue their studies. The rule dissuaded young girls from getting married, knowing that to do so would mean the end of their education at one of the nation’s top universities.
The ban was lifted after a complaint was filed with the National Human Rights Commission, which ruled that the ban violated an individual’s right to education. Women who left school because of the regulation were given until 2005 to return to their studies.
“The rule played a large part in protecting women so that they would be able to get a formal education,” says Lee Duck-kyu, the university spokeswoman. “But with the changes that have occurred in Korea in the last four decades, the rule became another kind of barrier.”
Ms. Lee said the university felt no urgent need to end the regulation because few women were dropping out to get married like they did years ago. The faculty and student body of 16,000 did not oppose the change.
While only 12 women were expelled from 1946 to 1993 because they were married, many others lived a secret life, not revealing their matrimonial status.
Kim Mi-eun, 20, who is enrolled in the cooking class with Ms. Suh, says, “At first I was a little taken aback to see her in our class. But I think it is incredibly admirable that she has come back to school at her age.”
As she walks along Ewha’s campus, Ms. Suh beams with delight as girls pass. “It is wonderful to be back at school,” she says. Then suddenly, spotting a girl smoking openly, she says, “Oh my gosh, look at her. Are they just going to let her smoke? In my days, this was unheard of.” She stares at the girl disapprovingly and receives in return an equally disapproving stare.
Ms. Suh, who entered the university in 1955, is among the thousands of students who quit Ewha to get married. “Back in those days, getting married was the be all and the end all. If someone wanted to marry you, you got married,” Ms. Suh says.
A diploma from the school, which was founded by a Methodist missionary, Mary Scranton, in 1886, was not important compared with getting married. Jobs for women were not only extremely scarce but also women disgraced her family by working outside the home.
In the late 19th century, education for girls was taboo and the role of women was limited to obedience to family and husband. Mrs. Scranton’s first-year class consisted of one student. But while society frowned on the idea of educating females, King Gojong thought otherwise, believing that education in Western disciplines offered Korea the best chance of survival. Infact, he gave Ewha its name.
So when Ms. Suh’s parents told her to marry a young man who held a law degree from Seoul National University, she consented. “I was the eldest of seven children. The sooner I got married, the better it would be for my family. I never questioned my parents.” She quit just before beginning her last semester at Ewha, in 1958.
Ms. Suh is in the company of some of Korea’s most prominent women. Lee Soon-ja, the wife of former President Chun Do-whan, and Sohn Myoung-soon, the wife of former President Kim Young-sam, dropped out of Ewha to marry.
Ms. Suh says her husband, a retired businessman, supports her decision to return to school after more than forty years. Her sons take turns dropping her off and picking her up from school and each volunteered to pay her tuition.
She says, “It never bothered me that I was not on the list of graduates of Ewha because having entered the school was in itself an honor. Many of my friends quit school because of the no marriage rule, but that did not make us think we were not Ewha grads. I was always proud of my Ewha heritage.”
Standing in front of a campus cafe, Ms. Suh greets Hur Soon-e, another married student who has reenrolled. Ms. Hur, 41, who entered the university in 1981, in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science, is coming from a three-hour lecture. A mother of three, she has five semesters to go before receiving her diploma. She left school during her sophomore year after her husband-to-be threatened to become a Buddhist monk if she did not marry him. “I was overwhelmed when he came back with a monk’s haircut. I thought I would never meet someone who would love me this much so I married him,” she says. But she said she later cried, regretting her decision. “I called the school many times,” Ms. Hur says, “to ask them to take me back, but each time their answer was no.”
Ms. Hur is also reveling in every moment of campus life. “It’s like a dream come true. I am so enthusiastic about everything, sitting in lectures, studying in the library, making friends.”
Ms. Hur, who owns an interior design firm, manages the company while taking 18 credits, attending school four days a week. She says her husband, who works in the construction business, always felt guilty because she had to leave school to marry him. He has taken over all the household work, freeing her to study without the distractions of the home.
She also has the benefit of a supportive family. “My eldest daughter is 20 years old and finds it cool that I am back in school,” she says. She says the courses are not difficult to follow and is even considering going to graduate school, perhaps to study business. “Every hour of my time here is precious to me,” Ms. Hur says.
Sitting in a grassy area of the campus among a patch of trees, Ms. Suh says, “It feels like I have been on a time machine and transported back to 45 years ago. Even though my friends are not here, and the campus surroundings are different from then, I feel like I am a student again.” She says that although she is back for only one semester, she wants to make the most of it. “This is the last time I have to prove myself, to challenge and test myself. But I have no fear. I am incredibly grateful for the happiness I have been given.”
Asked about the changes she notices most about the Ewha campus, Ms. Suh says, “In our days, we had chapel three times a week, and the service was solemn and holy, but now, it has become quite stale. Everyone is falling asleep.” Aside from the changes in landscape, Ms. Suh says the students during her time were more close knit. “We were like a family,” she says, “We brought packed lunches from home and ate together. The professors knew practically all the names of the students. School life has definitely become more individualistic.”


by Choi Jie-ho
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