[VIEWPOINT]Nurses are leaving our education behindIn 1966, Gimpo International Airport was often full of people in tears. The airport was filled with the cries of young children clinging desperately to their mothers, sobbing elderly parents sending off daughters to a remote country and weeping young women who were leaving the country to make money for their families and help their homeland.
It was a common scene for Korean nurses who left to work in Germany in the 1960s.
These patriotic nurses remitted the money they made by working long hours and leading thrifty lives in a country where they could not communicate easily with the people they served.
The German marks that the Korean nurses sent home at that time were literally soaked with their tears.
From 1966 until 1977, a total of 10,032 nurses volunteered to work in Germany, a deal worked out by the government in exchange for German development loans.
The money remitted by the nurses and Korean coal miners working in Germany at the time amounted to about 30 percent of the nation's total export earnings. With the money they remitted and the loans from the German government, South Korea built the Seoul-Busan highway and industrial factories. The sweat and tears of the Germans who achieved the “Miracle on the Rhine” helped provide the foundation for the “Miracle on the Han River.”
Forty years later, plans have been announced that up to 10,000 Korean nurses, about the same number of nurses sent to Germany, will be sent to work at 36 hospitals in New York State over the next five years.
We should be delighted and celebrate the news that the diligence, sincerity and ability of our nurses are recognized even in the United States.
But the news is not all that delightful. What is the reason behind these mixed feelings?
Consider these emerging stories about our departing nurses: A woman who is just past 40 resigned from her position as a professor of science of nursing at a prestigious university in Seoul.
During the past two months, she has been struggling to prepare for the U.S. National Council Licensure Examinations for Registered Nurses at a private foreign language institute in Seoul's Gangnam district. She is doing it for the sake of her two children, now in middle and high school, who are slaving away in their studies at private educational institutions and receiving off-campus tutoring.
If she gets a job as a nurse in a U.S. hospital, she can become eligible for permanent residency in the United States and then, she thinks, her children can more easily be admitted to competitive American universities.
Another woman, in her late 30s, is director of nursing services at a large hospital in Seoul. She is also preparing for the U.S. licensing exams. She says, “The wage level for nurses in the United States is higher than here and there is no need to spend as much on private education as we do here. I don’t have to worry about sending my young children overseas for education or leaving my husband alone at home like a lone goose for the sake of our children's education.”
She’s not the only one; in fact, a large number of nurses at her hospital are preparing for the exams. A good number of nurses have already passed the examinations.
Among Koreans who have obtained a domestic nursing license, tens of thousands are housewives or have jobs other than nursing, so their licenses have been kept in the closet. But the growing popularity of nursing jobs in American hospitals has induced many to bring out their licenses. Of the people attending morning classes in preparation for the U.S. nursing licensure exams at a private foreign language institute near Gangnam Station in Seoul, one third are housewives holding nursing licenses.
Last year, 1,731 nurses applied for the exams. The number of applicants is estimated to increase by 20 to 30 percent a year. Because New York State’s requirements are less stringent than in other states, the competition is stiff, with some applicants having to wait 12 months to get into the exams.
Many nursing school students are now preparing for them. Because hiring for nursing jobs in the United States is growing, the number of Koreans quitting their jobs to enroll in nursing school is also on the rise.
We have to worry whether the mass exodus of experienced Korean nurses to the United States will end up creating a vacuum in our medical services. As we heard from the nurses preparing for the exams, immigration is clearly a major motivation behind their move to seek work in the United States.
Like the nurses who went to Germany 40 years ago, those who have gone to the United States have also suffered stress due to language problems, the cultural gap and loneliness. Some have failed to adapt to their new life due to a lack of language skills. Nevertheless, they continue to apply for overseas jobs because they are choosing hope for the future.
Some 40 years ago, the overseas job applicants were determined to make their family wealthier by saving six- to seven-fold higher wages than they could get in Korea. But now, they leave the country with the hope that they can raise their children in a better educational environment than that in South Korea.
A 44-year-old nurse who immigrated to the United States three years ago told an acquaintance recently, “Work at hospitals here is very hard. But my 15-year-old son likes being here a lot. I have never regretted my decision to come to the United States.”
How will government officials interpret her remark? I hope they will not misinterpret the boom in applications for U.S. nursing jobs as a phenomenon resulting from people's longing to emigrate to the United States or from their desire to make more money.
Instead, they should keep in mind that the long queue of nurses who are leaving South Korea will never end as long as the nation's education policies are not reformed.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-shik