Bringing the world to the classroomIn a small classroom at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul recently, about 20 students were discussing issues ranging from anti-Americanism to the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the world economy. It was the sort of discussion that happens all the time on Korean campuses, with one exception: It was all in English.
These students belonged to the Division of International Studies (DIS) at Ewha Womans University. Founded in 2001, it was the first all-English-language undergraduate program in Korea, and the first international studies program at the undergraduate level.
Three years later, such programs are booming on Korean campuses.
Korea University created a similar program in 2002, and others, including Hanyang University, Seoul National University and Kyung Hee University, have followed suit. Yonsei University recently said it would offer an undergraduate international studies program starting in 2006. All but Kyung Hee University’s program are in English.
There is strong demand fueling this boom in international studies programs, which cover international finance, politics, law and sociology. Five hundred students applied for the 30 openings in Ewha’s first class in 2001.
“We saw a niche for potential students who had no place to do undergraduate work in English in Korea. If they have lived abroad, it is very difficult to come back to Korea to get a college education,” said Kim Eun-mee, dean of the International Education Institute at Ewha.
One barrier for such students has been the government-administered Scholastic Ability Test, which reflects the specific curricula of Korean schools. The admissions program for Ewha’s DIS was itself groundbreaking, in that it did not require applicants to take the SAT. Instead, students were evaluated based on English essays and interviews, in addition to their educational records.
Korea University does use the SAT. “The purpose of our program is to prepare local students who were brought up in Korea to work in international settings, and to globalize a Korean university,” said Park Inn-won, an economics professor at the Division of International Studies at Korea University.
Indeed, these programs are partly aimed at making the universities themselves more global in nature. English-language instruction and the abandonment of the SAT requirement open doors to foreign undergraduates.
“What the program is trying to do is to provide foreign university education in Korea at an undergraduate level,” said Jasper S. Kim, professor of law at Ewha and a former investment banker.
Globalization has to be a two-way street, Mr. Park said. “It is important for Korean students to go abroad, but it is also important for foreign students to come to Korea,” he said. “For that, the biggest obstacle was that there were not enough classes taught in English.”
Ewha’s program has attracted a small number of foreign students. Reel Khalifa, daughter of Sudan’s ambassador to Korea, Babiker Ali Khalifa, is one of them.
“I believe we need more women role models in this field, especially in the Middle Eastern and African region, and I hope to gain knowledge so that I can help individuals in the region, where there are war, famine and other problems,” said Ms. Khalifa, who hopes to become a diplomat.
Korea University launched its program in 2002 with 20 students, almost all selected through the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Since then, the school has gradually increased the percentage of students admitted through English essays and interviews, as well as the number of foreign nationals and Koreans who’ve lived abroad for long periods.
This year, 12 students were selected through the SAT, and eight through English essays and interviews. Despite the short history of the program, it has 10 foreign students. “I don’t even know how the foreign students found out about the program,” Mr. Park said.
Mr. Park said there are classes about Korea within the department to teach foreign students, and Koreans returning from abroad, about the country. Both Ewha and Korea universities sent brochures to high schools and colleges outside Korea to attract applicants.
Korea University’s DIS program is extremely popular. For the class of 2005, more than 35 students applied for each of the openings reserved for selection via English essays and interviews. That makes those slots the most competed-for in the university, except for the business administration program.
At Ewha’s DIS program, classes have an ambience that’s unusual for Korea, according to Ms. Kim. “Students interrupt you and correct you all the time,” she said. “In a Korean classroom, students are more respectful.”
Ewha’s program has grown; from an original class of 30 students in 2001, it admitted 50 the following year, 70 in 2003 and 72 this year. It will produce its first graduates in the spring.
In the beginning, there were concerns about the program’s unconventional admissions standards. “The biggest worry was quality control,” Ms. Kim said. “In Korean universities, you have the standardized test everybody takes. We were worried that this would be seen as a sign to attract students who’d have not gotten a high score in the standardized test.”
But such worries disappeared as the applications came in. “If [these students] had studied in Korea, they would have done very well on the standardized test,” Ms. Kim said.
Most of the students in Ewha’s program have exceptional command of English as well as Korean, and sometimes a third language as well, as they all have experience living abroad. Most of the students interviewed didn’t feel committed to living in Korea, though they said their hearts would always be here.
“In 10 years, I think I will find more than half of them living abroad,” Ms. Kim said. “They don’t necessarily see Korea as the only place they live in. I think that’s very different from my generation.”
“One of main interests is China,” said Choi Sun-kyu, a DIS senior at Ewha. “It has an interesting culture and I really like the food. It doesn’t really matter for me where in Asia I am, as long as I am happy with my job.”
“I do think that I want to represent Korea’s best interests,” said Kim Pia, an Ewha DIS junior who plans to become an attorney. “I should be able to represent Korea and advocate Korea abroad, and I want to work for Korea no matter where I am.”
“We are going out to represent Korea, not to leave Korea,” said Lee Young-eun, a sophomore at Korea University’s DIS program. “We will come back someday, come back and forth. My home will always be Korea.”
Professors in the DIS programs at both Korea and Ewha universities agree that their students will probably become Korea specialists no matter where they live.
“The students who took the SAT have had less international experience and are less fluent in foreign languages, but they better understand Korea,” Mr. Park said. “Meanwhile, other students have better command in foreign languages, but their understanding of Korea is not well developed.”
“What’s important is how much the students can overcome their weaknesses,” he said. “If they only developed their strengths while attending the program, it could be said that they have failed.”
by Limb Jae-un