So you want to go to America?America's symbols of success can be a powerful draw, especially for university students preparing to enter the business world. In fact, the move toward a highly linked commercial world is led in large part by the United States, a fact not lost on Lee Guhn-chang, an engineering major who plans to pursue a master's degree in business administration.
“Borders are disappearing as globalization continues; studying in the United States is inevitable,” Mr. Lee says.
Studying in the United States is also a dream of Jo Hana, a sophomore at Ewha Womans University. Ms. Jo, who is majoring in political science, plans to enter Monterey Institute of International Studies, a school of translation and interpretation in California.
Mr. Lee and Ms. Jo were among hundreds of students who carted their ambitions to a recent conference held by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea to provide information on American business and culture. The conference, "Let's Explore American Business and Culture," was held at Ewha Womans University, where AMCHAM introduced its internship program. The program accepts 20 students four times a year for work assignments at the chamber's Seoul headquarters. The Ewha event was the first of three conference.
The success of most conferences of this type -- part recruitment, part information distribution, part networking -- can be measured by one thing: How well was the message received.
“It was a perfect American promotion show; she spoke in very clear English so everybody could understand, I thought she was quite honest,” said Achim Beisswenger, 27, from Germany, reacting to a speech by AMCHAM's executive vice president, Tami Overby, who introduced the internship program and outlined AMCHAM's vision of the Washington-Seoul relationship.
“I thought she was not nice to Koreans, focusing too much on the American dream and not reality,” said Tanja Weithoener, 29, also from Germany.
What exactly did Ms. Overby say?
“It’s hard work, but we treat our interns with professionalism," she emphasized during her address. Speaking later to a potential candidate for an internship, she stressed the importance of attitude. "Interns must be ready to work in order to get the job done on time.”
Citing the relationship between the United States and Korea, Ms. Overby stressed the economic health of both nations. “We want the Korean economy strong because it is in our interest. When your economy is strong, you buy more U.S. products; if your economy suffers, our economy suffers and our members as well, we are in the same boat.”
Keeping that boat afloat and steering it into prosperous waters require skills, especially business skills. David Behling, visiting professor at the Korea Development Institute’s School for Public Policy, and a former vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank, encouraged the students to pursue a master's in business administration at a top American university before testing their skills on Wall Street.
“The notion of free trade, free markets and freedom of expression are three concepts that come directly from the United States,” said Young Gak Yun, executive officer of Samjong KPMG.
“A maximum of 20 students can be enrolled in our internship program four times a year,” Ms. Overby said. "But there is a physical limitation as to the number of them we can have, so the idea is to export our program to other AMCHAM member firms in Korea."
The AMCHAM student internship program, launched in 2000, is designed to give undergraduate and graduate students practical experience in administration, marketing, public relations and other business related fields. An internship lasts about three months, but the length can change, depending on the importance of the project they are assigned.
“Although the concept of internship is quite new here, it’s a good way to try before you buy, so you can see if the person fits with the culture of the company,” Ms. Overby said.
Sponsored by AMCHAM and Korea International Trade Association, one of the other purposes of the Ewha conference was to provide a better understanding of American culture and business practices and celebrate the chamber's 50th anniversary. The conference, which featured the performance of a 20 minute excerpt from “West Side Story” and a slide show, “One Day in Manhattan,” was also designed to help ease the growing strains between Washington and Seoul.
With hundreds of students applying for the internship program, some conference participants, especially those who were not studying business, appeared daunted by the odds of being selected. Chong Eileen, an English literature major at Ewha, said: “Although we can send an e-mail about our plans at anytime to AMCHAM, the interns will be chosen on the basis of their resume; they don’t plan to do interviews.”
Despite the low pay (as in none), students seemed to recognize the value of the hands-on experience. “I think it’s a good opportunity, since right now the labor market is tough, so this could be a great thing to do,” said Sophie Moon, 20, a sophomore in Ewha's Division of International Studies.
For those who land a job abroad, their American experience provides an impressive item on their resume when they return to Korea, which is still suffering from a sluggish economy.
Lee Min-seon, 25, a former intern who is now on the AMCHAM staff, said the experience increased her ability to work within a team.
With the United States toughening visa requirements, Ms. Overby underlined the importance for students to also apply for jobs at AMCHAM companies. The firm would be able to help students with the U.S. visa procedures, whether for business or study. “If I have the opportunity, I’ll go through this network to avoid visa problems,“ said Ho Gyong-ae, 31.
Jeffrey Jones, a former AMCHAM president, caught the audience off guard with the proclamation: “Making money is boring, talking about politics is more interesting!” to which he got a collective laugh.
Switching gears, he emphasized the parallel between the jaebeol system prevailing in Korea, and the situation at the beginning of the 20th century in the United Stated with John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, who monopolized much of the industrial capital.
He also touched on the lack of transparency, fair competition and compliance with legal systems, factors that led in part to the Great Depression in 1929 and the financial crisis in Asia in 1997.
“He had a unique speech that I did not hear from the others. He understands well our society and that talked to me,” said Cho Hosung, 26, from Hanyang University.
“He confirmed my conviction that Americans are very frank. There are both pros and cons; I want to learn that practical way of thinking through an MBA program in a few years,” said Lee Young-man, a business major at Hanyang University.
When President Roh Moo-hyun made his first visit ever to the United States last spring, he commented that he saw nothing in New York City that he had not seen in Seoul -- except Wall Street. "That is something else," he said.
Wall Street attracts dreamers from around the globe, and Mr. Behling echoed the enthusiasm for the world's financial capital.
"Should you go to Wall Street to find a job?" he asked the audience. "Yes," he said, answering his own question, as if there were no other option.
But not all the students at the conference were eager to heed his advice. "I plan to do my MBA in China to differentiate myself," said Mr. Cho.
Others seemed concerned about the toll a demanding career could exact on their life. “Working on Wall Street is exciting, and I could develop my skills there, but can I be satisfied with it? There’s a lot of stress and competition involved,” said Lee Jeong-ju, 24, a business administration major at Ewha.
But Mr. Behling's message seemed to have struck a chord.
“He gave a very convincing impression that anyone with ambition can make it,” said Ms. Weithoener.
Mr. Cho said: “What he mentioned about the differences in the working culture between Korea and the U.S. were good points, things not in books!”
But others, though in the minority, voiced disappointment.
“The conference was nothing special. I wanted to learn something new and hear a professional speech,” said Lee Guhn-chang.
by Anne Lajoye
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