Ewha's Exchange Experiment: The Faces and Figures
Ewha's Exchange Experiment: The Faces and Figures
  • Ewha Voice
  • 승인 2007.03.02 00:00
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By David McIlwain


International exchange at Ewha and in Korea generally has reached a particularly dynamic phase. Late last year the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development reported foreign students numbers had risen from a mere 3,963 at the start of the millennium to a record high of 22,624. Korean universities are quickly, some say hastily, moving towards becoming major importers of students after years of being noted only as exporters of their scholars.

Korea still runs a significant imbalance in this exchange. For example Koreans remain the largest group of foreigners studying in the United States (a huge 13.5% of the total in 2005) and are often among the first targets of Western university presidents looking to raise revenues through international student fees. Yet despite their numerical insignificance in comparison with those outbound, foreign students have created a notable demographic shift in a country that maintains a fearsomely homogenous population and culture.
  The questions being asked of the institutions driving this trend towards greater internationalization, among them Ewha, include the issues of motivation, English educational standards and experiences of the international and local students who are part of this experiment. How much are Ewha's exchange students really participating in Korean university culture? They certainly eat a lot of ramyun and usually acquire an intimate knowledge of the entertainment options of Sinchon and Hongdae but are they here to gain an Asian educational experience or simply to provide an international (and English-speaking) atmosphere for Ewha's local students?

Justin Jung Hoon Kim (University of Toronto, 4) has a unique perspective as one of the few Korean-born men to be studying at Ewha. He says that “a strong interest in Korean society and culture” brought him back here to study and he finds that, while the gender factor inhibits full participation in the extracurricular life, “In academic activities I am fully involved as a Korean student.” Kim went on to add that “even though I have spent only one semester here I already have more friends than at my home school [in Canada] – both among local students and internationals.”  

Varena Neth (University of Bonn, 3) brings the view of a European student when noting that the growth in exchange to Korea is in line with a general trend towards internationalization. “Korea is more known in the world. You see more Korean films in Germany now. We are familiar with their brands,” she says. However Neth qualified this by noting that there is still an exotic air to studying in Korea compared to more common destinations. “Coming to Korea is still considered an interesting choice. You get a lot of questions about it.”

But is Ewha a real Korean experience? Neth is slightly hesitant, “Am I qualified to answer this?” She went on to note the privileged and well-managed situation of exchange students at Ewha but also the many opportunities to meet Koreans through Ewha Peace Buddies and other activities arranged for internationals.
  However it is not just Ewha and
Korea rushing headlong into globalized education. In most tertiary education markets there has been double-digit annual growth in exchange student numbers since the late 1990s. In a market culturally comparable to Korea such as Japan, foreign student enrolment increased 108% in the five years from 1999 to 2004 before experiencing a slight drop in 2006. Yet the students heading to Japan are markedly different from those who arrive at Ewha. For one thing their language proficiency is much higher, with most of the Asian students intending to study through the medium of the host country and most of the Western students majoring in Japanese Studies.

Here at Ewha most exchange students arrive to study in the School of International Studies intending to study in English. Hard to believe as it may be, many students from European countries come to Ewha with the specific goal of improving their skills in the international language. For Kim, who has considered a career as a diplomat, this is not a major worry. He believes that exchange is “a sort of personal diplomacy, enhancing Korea’s soft-power and influence overseas.” He adds that the exchange is important for both the countries and schools involved.
  Among those who come to Ewha to pursue Korean Studies or with an interest in Korean culture, students from neighboring Asian countries make up the most significant groups. If you head down to the
Ewha Language Center during session on weekday mornings you will find the upper-level Korean language classes dominated by Japanese students with a smattering of Chinese and the occasional more exotic face or two. In general however it seems that Korea has failed to impress on its incoming exchange students the necessity of learning Korean. It is easily possible to survive or even prosper at Ewha with only the basic phrases of Korean if a student has a good command of English.

This will worry those who believe Korea is too willing to disregard its native potential in the world for a facade of imitation globalized culture. Kim and Neth, representing contrasted experiences of Ewha, both mentioned the fine line between a cultural siege mentality and complete openness to global currents. Neth warned of an uncritical embrace of American culture: “Korea is very American-influenced, more so than Europe, but Korea doesn’t need this influence from other countries, just knowledge and good relationships.”
  No one would question the genuine and warm welcome exchange students receive at Ewha. Indeed with a lingering perception in
Korea that Ewha students are elite it could be said that the internationals are the privileged among the privileged. Kim enthused about his time here: “When I think about it, I have nothing but positive feelings towards Ewha.”

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