Women’s school celebrates its 100th year of education

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Women’s school celebrates its 100th year of education

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One hundred years ago next Monday, the school that became Sookmyung Women’s University opened its doors for the first time. Established by the royal decree of Queen Uhm, the second wife of Emperor Gojong, Myungshin Girl’s School, as it was then called, was the first women’s school established by a Korean.
In its inaugural year, the school admitted just five pupils, ages 11 to 26, who were to be molded into “wise mothers and a good wives.” But times changed, and so did the school’s aims: It started exhorting its students to challenge the subservient role of women in Korean society. In response to the maxim, “The house in which the hen crows louder than the cock will fall ill,” the school urged its students to crow as loudly as possible. The school has since adopted a more conciliatory tone, however, adopting the motto, “Gentle power to change the world.”
Last week, 15 alumni who have gently changed, if not the world, then at least Korea, and three undergraduate students gathered at the university. The youngest was in the class of 2010; the oldest, the class of 1941.
“I could never have imagined that I’d see the centennial of the school’s foundation,” said Lee Hae-nam, who graduated in 1941. “I’m so glad that I’m still alive to see it.”
Ms. Lee seemed overwhelmed by emotion as she noted how much the school had developed. “When I was here, there was just one temporary building in this whole area,” she recalled. “At that time, before Korea was liberated from the Japanese colonial government, some Japanese teachers discriminated against Korean students, and we were forced to change our names to Japanese ones. There was also tension between Japanese and Korean students.” The student body, she said, was split 50-50 by Korean and Japanese students.
“I lived in the school dormitory,” said You Jee-young, from the class of 1972 and the current president of Wolgan Yu-Ah, a monthly magazine. “The curfew was at 8 p.m., and I constantly had to run to get back on time; if you were late twice, you got kicked out of the dormitory. There used to be crowds of male students outside the main gate at around 8 o’clock seeing their girlfriends off.” Fortunately for today’s students, the curfew is a thing of the past.
“There was only one building, a wooden one. I remember tripping once when my heel was caught in the gap of the wooden stairs at the building,” said Park Chan-sook, class of 1968 and now a lawmaker with the Grand National Party.
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“I remember endless changes. Whenever I came back to school after vacation, something had always changed,” said Lee Hye-jin, class of 1999, and a judge at the Daejeon District Court. “I was far from a quiet and silent woman. I wasn’t interested in taking bar exams and I just thought about finding a good man to marry, trying to look fashionable and dyeing my hair red and yellow.”
But Sookmyung, whose name is a homophone for the Korean word for “destiny,” had a different fate in store for Ms. Lee.
“One day, Professor Choi Seung-soon of the law department sent me a three-page e-mail that changed my life,” she said. The message read that despite considering her a flippant student at first glance, Mr. Choi felt convinced that Ms. Lee could pass the bar exam. “I could feel how much he cared for me. If Mr. Choi hadn’t sent me that e-mail, I would never have thought about becoming a judge,” she said.
Ms. Park recalled a similar experience. “After being fired from KBS in 1980, I came to the school on a whim. Professor Kim Yong-sook told me at that time, ‘Whatever you do, Sookmyung is on your side, and we’re waiting for you to stand up again.’ I cried a lot,” she said.
Lee Keum-hee, class of 1988 and now a television and radio announcer, said that Lee Man-yeol, a professor of Korean history, always told his students that if they would just stop fussing over their makeup and read more books, they could go on to become opinion leaders.
Lee Kyung-sook, the president of Sookmyung, said that although the school is not large, the students are ambitious and that it is quietly growing. “Twenty-five years ago, the class of 1965 started making annual donations of 5 million won ($5,290 at current rates) to the university, and so far, they have donated 125 million won,” said Ms. Lee. “Students are very considerate and love the school a lot, making for a familial atmosphere.”
“When I was going to school, I promised myself one thing: I will make a living doing something I love. I want you to find what you love most, and march toward that goal,” Shin Dal-ja, an author who graduated Sookmyung in 1965, told the young students.
“Students should build their own vision and life goal,” Ms. Lee said. “I want them to see what they believe, not just believe what they see.”


The history of Sookmyung Women’s University:

1906 - Queen Uhm designates a site on the grounds of Yongdong Palace for Myungshin Girl’s School.
1909 - Myungshin changes its name to Sookmyung.
1939 - Sookmyung Women’s Junior College, the predecessor of Sookmyung Women’s University, is established.
1948 - The junior college becomes Sookmyung Women’s College.
1955 - Sookmyung Women’s College becomes Sookmyung Women’s University with the establishment of a graduate school and four colleges.
1995 - The school announced 10-year development plan.
1998 - The school equipped its campus with a wireless network infrastructure.
2001 - The school created a mobile campus.


by Park Sung-ha
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