[Viewpoint] A second chance to succeedAs a boy, Barack Obama had his share of struggles. He had an identity crisis as a half-black boy living in Hawaii with his maternal white grandparents. He drank alcohol and used marijuana during his youth. His grades dropped in his senior year of high school, but he was admitted to Occidental College in Los Angeles.
When he attended a rally opposing racial discrimination, he discovered his interest in politics. He transferred to Columbia University in New York City and majored in political science. His trip to Kenya before attending Harvard Law School stirred his interest in working in black communities and helping underprivileged citizens.
However, he realized that in order to bring about substantial change, structural reforms in law and policy were necessary in addition to the development of the local environment.
He then entered Harvard. His educational experiences at Columbia and Harvard became crucial assets for him. Maybe because he benefited so much from attending prestigious educational institutions, President Obama likes to talk about “education as the key to success.”
When he recently visited a school to celebrate the beginning of the new school year, he emphasized the importance of education, referring to his struggles as a teenager. And in the month that followed, he praised the Korean education system several times. Obama said that Korean children do not waste much time playing video games or watching television and instead invest valuable time in studying mathematics, science and foreign languages.
Thanks to that passion and investment in education, Korea was able to escape poverty and make a leap.
Obama must mean what he says, since he repeats the same argument whenever he has a chance. He highly regards the passion and devotion of Korean parents and emphasis on education in Korea.
However, there is one thing that the president has taken for granted. I am talking about the darker sides of Korean education, such as excessive dependence on private education. In fact, the power of an American education comes from the tolerance for momentary deviations in the teen years and the willingness to give second chances.
In the U.S., it is relatively easy to transfer to another college or university or pursue further education in graduate school. When you want to study more and make sincere efforts, the doors will be open.
For example, community colleges provide higher education to the general public based on the belief in the importance of continuing education. These are two-year public institutions, granting associate’s degrees, and are comparable to junior colleges in Korea.
There are 1,200 community colleges in the U.S., and if you earn grades above a certain standard, state universities are required to accept a transfer student without any exams.
In late September, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation into law that gives community college students guaranteed admission to any of the campuses in the state university system. The students need to earn 60 course units and have at least a 2.0 grade point average.
Many other states, such as Virginia, provide a similar guarantee to allow qualified community college students the right to pursue further education in state universities.
In some cases, community college graduates with outstanding grades even go on to prestigious private universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
In Korea, when you take a university entrance exam, the score determines the school you can attend.
What about Korea learning from the U.S. and adopting an easier transfer system?
It would be just in time because “fair society” has emerged as a buzz word in Korea. A “fair society” is defined as a society in which equal opportunities are provided while you are also given a second chance for a comeback.
In the U.S., those students who wish to pursue further studies are given the chance to do so more freely than in Korea. If students who are capable and willing to study are allowed to transfer to another university or go on to graduate school more easily, junior colleges will attract more students preparing for four-year colleges and graduate schools. Maybe, a second or third Obama will come from Korea among those students who are given a second chance.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Choi Sang-yeon