Week 8: 58 Days

Dear DESK17,

This is crazy, isn’t it? For seven months, my group has been the newbies, the inexperienced ones. We’ve been the ones asking last year’s group for advice at every step of the way and then frantically texting them things go wrong anyway. And now here we are, with one full day left in Korea, and we’re the next crop of soon-to-be alums of DukeEngage South Korea (DESK – you’ll get used to the acronym). But instead of thinking about how my experience in South Korea is almost over, I want to think about the future – and that’s where you come in.

When you find out that you got into DukeEngage, you’re going to be so excited. Maybe, like some of us, you had been meticulously planning for months and even called your parents for feedback on your application essays (okay, maybe that was just me). Maybe you applied on a whim the night before the application was due. Either way, I bet you’ll be pumped, and you should be! You have an amazing experience ahead of you. I’m sure you’re also just a little nervous, and I bet you have a ton of questions. I know I did – and now I have some answers. So without further ado, here it is: The Handy Dandy Little Guide to DukeEngage South Korea (THDLGDESK?).

Q: How’s the food?

A: It’s good. It may be different than what you’re used to, but Seoul has all different kinds of food, so don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone! You may not be ready for the live eel, but I bet a bowl of samgyetang or kongguksu will be right up your alley. Personally, I recommend stopping by a bakery for a nice pastry on your way to the subway station in the morning.

Q: And Seoul? Is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

A: That and more. If you’re into history, there are ancient palaces, temples, and even a whole preserved village to check out. If shopping is your thing, there are shopping malls and markets pretty much everywhere, from the glittering, trendy Coex mall to the artsy Insadong shopping district. Your main purpose for being in Seoul is service, but don’t feel bad about using the weekends to see all that the city has to offer! A large aspect of DukeEngage is cultural immersion and exchange, and you won’t get that by staying inside the guesthouse when you’re not preparing for class.

Q: Oh, shoot… class. How do I go about lesson planning? How do I even teach? I’m so unprepared.

A: Don’t worry, we were, too. You will have some training and discussion during your pre-departure class, but I can say from experience that as soon as you first step into the classroom, 90% of that will go out the window. You’ll probably mess up a few times, and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid of failure. When it comes to this, my main advice is to listen – listen to your group members and professors, listen to your students, and listen to yourself. When something is working, you’ll know, and it’ll be an absolutely great feeling.

Q: What about my group members? Why weren’t they cc’ed on the acceptance email? Who are they?

A: Sorry, can’t give an exact answer to this one, and you won’t know their names for like a month (and trust me, we’ll be as curious about them as you are). All I can tell you is this: they will be passionate, curious, and intelligent – just like you are! Like you, they bring so much value to the program. Don’t be afraid to disagree with them sometimes, but do so with respect for their opinions and insights. Listen to them, respect them, and learn their strategies in various card games. It’ll be useful. Trust me.

Q: Okay… so what about the students? What will they be like?

A: Energetic. Crazy. Annoying. Sweet. Vulnerable. Thoughtful. Absolutely perfect. Standing in front of a classroom of twenty kids might be one the scariest experiences of your life, but it will also be one of the most rewarding. Approach them with an open mind, and know what an opportunity it is for both you and them to get to know each other. Language barriers can definitely be hard, but don’t be afraid to speak to them in your broken Korean or Chinese or whatever language you might speak. Kids are actually very patient in that regard, and they really just want to get to know you!

… and I’m sure you have a thousand more questions. But for all the things I should have known before I left for South Korea, here is some of my advice:

  • I said it earlier in the post, and I’ll say it again: listen, listen, listen. You may see or hear things you don’t agree with, either from your group members or your community partners, but at the very least, just hear them out. Don’t always assume that you know the most about a given situation.
  • At the same time, if you have an opinion about something, don’t be afraid to speak up! DukeEngage is the perfect opportunity to start the kinds of conversations that can make you a more informed and understanding global citizen. Even (especially) if your opinion is “controversial,” talk to your group members and professors about it! It’s a great chance to start thinking about the larger issues that surround your service work.
  • Speaking of which, always be cognizant of those larger issues. They’re the whole reason why you’ll be in South Korea – but more on that in a bit.
  • Get an ice cream croquette from the place around the corner from your guest house. You can thank me later.
  • If two girls come up to you on the street to ask you for directions, feign surprise when you tell them you’re a foreigner, and then try to rope you into a “traditional ceremony” where you get to wear hanbok, don’t listen to them. In the words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!”
  • Go to a noraebang with your whole group. Sing your heart out. We recommend “Mr. Brightside.”
  • Take your time with your teaching preparations, but get ready to improvise anyway.
  • Bring bug spray.
  • Love your students, love your group members, and love yourself.
  • Don’t try to fix everything. That’s not your job.
  • Cherish every single day, even when you’re tired or frustrated or just plain homesick, because you’ll have 58 of them ahead of you, and then suddenly you’ll only have one.

… but that’s the thing, isn’t it? Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing this summer, I told them it was an “eight week service program in South Korea,” but it’s so much more than that. I may have one day left in South Korea, but I have years left of continuing to strive to understand these issues and the people who they affect. Your DukeEngage experience is going to take the problems that you learned about in your textbooks and make them real and personal. If you ignore everything else I wrote in this letter, just remember this: it’s not just eight weeks. I can’t tell you what you’re going to do with the things you learn and the experiences you have during DukeEngage. I can’t even tell you what I’m going to do with them. All I know is that it’s not over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning.

This letter is already way too long, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But this isn’t something that can be described in 10 words or 10,000 words. It’s just something you’ve got to experience yourself – and DESK16 is pretty jealous of you in that you are about to do just that.




Week 7: Homesick

My only problem was a brownie sundae.

It’s been a pretty good week at the Mulmangcho School. I’ve enjoyed conversing with the older students and playing silly games with the younger students. I’ve loved stopping by the dog cage at least twice a day to check in on Manse, one of the school’s many animals, and her new litter of six puppies. I’ve had a great time decorating the school dorm with photographs and paper cutouts, and I even felt a nice sense of gratification after I cleaned out the downstairs toilets. But yet throughout the afternoon last Wednesday, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted a brownie sundae. I’m talking about the real deal – a warm, gooey slab of brownie forming an island of deliciousness as rivulets of delicious vanilla ice cream pour down its sides to form a pool of sweet cream just waiting to be scooped up in my spoon. Is your mouth watering yet? I know mine is. At the time, I could almost taste it.

As it turns out, my brownie sundae fantasies are symptoms of a larger affliction that’s been slowly creeping up on me throughout the past week or so: homesickness. As much as I love Korea and the work I’m doing here, and while I greatly appreciate the hospitality and kindness our group has received from our host communities, I find myself just missing the familiar. I want to eat the foods I’m used to eating and hear the language I’m used to hearing and see the people I love and care for. As I’ve told some friends and family members, it’s perfect timing. It’s near the end of the trip, so I can enjoy Korea for these last few days, and when I say my farewells, it’ll be with a combination of sadness that I’m leaving this beautiful country and happiness that I’m going home.

Puppy and Me

Me with a Puppy

It’s not that way for my students.

Our students at Jiguchon came from countries all across Asia, and many of them will never return to the lands that they know and love. The Mulmangcho students, particularly those from North Korea, do not have the option of “going home.” While these students and their families came to South Korea for greater opportunities and living standards, and many left violence and persecution in their home nations, they left a place that was familiar to them. I see them laugh and smile and play, and I wonder how often they think about the places and people that they’ve left behind. I wonder what their “brownie sundae” was. I wonder if they’ve spent so much time without it that they’ve stopped thinking about it at all.

I’ve thought a lot about the fleeting nature of the DukeEngage program. Eight weeks sounds like a long time – until seven of them have gone by, and you realize that you’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding your host community. Even after I leave South Korea to go back to my home in America, their lives here will go on. The Jiguchon students will continue to flood into the school building every morning, chattering happily and running around until the jingle of the classroom bell calls (most of) them into their seats. The Mulmangcho students will continue to alternate studying with playing their favorite phone games, occasionally running to the gym to start up an impromptu game of basketball or badminton. In the same way, their struggles and hardships, the ones that we came to Korea to address and understand, do not disappear when our eight weeks are up.

Paper Planet

A planet I made for our dorm wall decoration

It is a privilege that when I am homesick, I know that I have a home and family waiting to greet me in a short amount of time. It is a privilege that I get to see and understand the social and political issues plaguing this world, but I don’t have to live them. For our students and for all people displaced by violence and persecution around the world, these issues are not confined to an eight-week summer program. These people will continue to make the most of their situations, living with grace, perseverance, and infectious good cheer in the midst of hardships that I cannot even begin to understand. I know that it is my responsibility to make sure that my DukeEngage experience doesn’t end with my first bite of brownie sundae. I need to continue to work to help these communities and my own in whatever ways I can. As I enter my last week in the DukeEngage South Korea program, I pray that I will see what I need to see, do what I need to do, and leave with an understanding and sense of direction for what to do moving forward.

I’ll let you know what I figure out.

See you then,


Week 6: This, That, and the “Other”

During the first three quarters of the DukeEngage South Korea program, our group has talked a lot about human rights, particularly as they relate to the horrors of war. We’ve learned about the violation and torture of South Korean comfort women, as well as the policies in place that continue to hurt the surviving women and their legacies. We’ve visited two locations along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea and learned of the intense pain and suffering that came in the wake of the Korean War. We have supplemented these experiences by learning personal stories – speaking to North Korean refugees, South Korean citizens, and a prisoner of war in order to understand their viewpoints on the struggles of Korea’s past and present. Even during the time we’ve been learning these things, international news has told multiple tales of violence and tragedy, confirming to us that the human rights issues we’ve been studying act as part of larger global trends.

Goseong DMZ

A startlingly beautiful portion of the DMZ near Goseong (고성)

Our past week at the Mulmangcho School (물망초학교) has been a different kind of educational experience. At this boarding school, which is located on the outskirts of Yeoju (여주), South Korea, our jobs include farm work, cleaning, one-on-one English teaching, and, most importantly, getting to know the sixteen students there. These students, who range in age from seven years old to twenty-three, are all either North Korean refugees themselves or have parents who are. I’m sure that they could fill entire books with their experiences and hardships – but this time, that’s not what it’s all about. For us, “getting to know them” does not mean getting to know North Korean refugees. It just means getting to know our students.

Particularly for Americans, many of whom have grown up hearing fantastical stories about North Korea, it’s tempting to turn the chance to talk to a North Korean into somewhat of an interrogation session, grilling them about their past experiences in the so-called “hermit kingdom.” Granted, our group has had plenty of chances to hear the stories of North Korean refugees, but these were structured conversations with adult North Koreans willing to share their stories and build their own narratives. The Mulmangcho students are youth who, like the Jiguchon students, are simply looking for a special avenue by which to integrate into South Korean society. Were we to take this approach at Mulmangcho, we would not only be prying into our students’ private lives, but we would be placing them in a box that has proven dangerous time and time again: the “other.”

During our time in South Korea, stories of tragedy have rolled in from across the international community. Three weeks ago, America mourned when a lone shooter killed 50 people and injured many more in an LBGT nightclub in Orlando. In the past week alone, acts of mass violence in Turkey and Bangladesh have left the world reeling. These tragedies join a host of similar events in the past several years, from shootings in schools and religious buildings, to instances of police brutality, to acts of international terrorism. I don’t claim to be an expert on public policy or human behavior, but I do know that these events stem from a fear of the “other,” of those who look differently, act differently, or believe differently than we do. The creation of this “other” can be a vicious cycle – one group hates or fears another, and so they lash out with violence, leading to deep mistrust of the first group on behalf of the second group and deepening the divide between them. Suddenly, people are not individuals but rather members of “us” or “them.” In our world, this cycle has found its way into our political and social systems, leading to increased marginalization and even persecution of those who have become “the other.”

It would be so easy to place North Koreans into this all-encompassing category without even thinking about it – in so many ways, “they” are different from “us.” I have to confess that when I arrived at Mulmangcho, first in my mind were questions about the students’ backgrounds – where they came from, how and why they got here, and what their lives were like “before.” It was so tempting to view them by their label rather than who they really are as people. However, as we’ve spent the past week with these students, I’ve come to see the smaller details about them – who likes to play basketball during recreation, and who prefers badminton; who works really diligently in pottery class, and who just smears clay all over the table (hint: it’s not the older students). I’m learning who will be the most willing to sing during music class and who is the shyest during one-on-one English class. And as I come to know their sweet and welcoming personalities, I am less and less interested in learning about who they were “before” but rather much more interested in who they are now.

Sunflowers at Mulmangcho

Sunflowers and Sun at Mulmangcho

In a world increasingly gripped with xenophobia and fear of the other, “human rights” becomes a murky term. It can be easy to identify human rights violations when the “other” is committing them, but it’s less easy to see when we are creating them ourselves. While it is important for us to study and understand the human rights violations occurring in North Korea, it is equally imperative that we learn to separate individuals from these complicated historical connotations. Even with the more kindly-intentioned view of the North Korean people as helpless victims, we turn them into an amorphous group of “others” who are unable to think or act for themselves. By focusing too much on the stories and not enough on the people, we devalue the individuals facing the very issues we are trying to solve.

I wish I knew all of the answers to these problems, but I don’t. I can’t solve these issues on my own. I can’t make people love and respect one another. I can’t take back the hatred and fear that have led to the loss of so many valuable lives over the last few weeks. But I can begin to address the human element of human rights and see my students as the wonderful individuals that they are – so for the next two weeks, this is what I’ll do.

– Leigh

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the attacks mentioned in this blog post as well as all those experiencing violence and persecution around the world.


Week 5: Q&A

This is my half of this week’s group blog post; the other half was written by Justin Ching. Read the full post here.

When I was in elementary school, I’m pretty sure I thought that my teachers knew everything. I’m not sure if our Jiguchon students felt that way about us, but they definitely had a lot of questions to ask us. “Teacher, what is that?” “Teacher, what are we doing?” “Teacher, what does that mean?” “Teacher… what?” We did have answers to those questions (when they were asked in a language that we understood), but as we finished our time at Jiguchon, we found that we were the ones doing the questioning.

Leigh and Chan Min

I asked for a hug… he climbed on my back.

At our group meetings the past two weeks, many of us expressed doubts about the impact of our service in this community. As a group of untrained teachers who were often unable to completely control our larger classes, we wondered if we were undoing standards of discipline at the school. When the students didn’t understand or simply weren’t interested in the topics that we were trying to teach them, we became frustrated with our inability to engage them in learning. As our time at Jiguchon came to a close, we began to think about the brevity of our service there and how little we really had time to do. Would that shy student have opened up if we had had just another week with her? Would that rowdy student have begun to listen if we had been able to give him more individualized attention over a long period of time? It seemed like just as soon as we started to figure out what we were doing at Jiguchon, we left it. In the bigger picture, what role were we playing as foreigners in this community? Would the students be better served by someone more intimately familiar with their situation who could stay for a longer period of time?

Cole and Michael

Another Piggy-Back Ride

At the DukeEngage Academy, we spent a lot of time discussing the ethics of civic engagement and foreign service, so we felt that we were mentally prepared for our program before we left. However, many of us had been planning to participate in a DukeEngage program for months or even years, and we found our critiques difficult to reconcile with the idealized vision of civic engagement that we had held for so long. Even those of us who had participated in similar programs before and “knew what to expect” voiced similar doubts and concerns.

As we continued to ask these questions of ourselves, we discussed them with each other, our professors, and past participants of DukeEngage programs. As it turns out, we were not alone in our concerns. Even DukeEngagers who had previously given glowing reviews of their summers in the program revealed that they too had questioned and critiqued their own service work. As one friend of mine put it, “I think if you’re not questioning your program or DukeEngage at one point, you’re doing something wrong.” DukeEngage is all about tackling a problem, but it’s also about understanding that these problems can’t be tackled in the span of several weeks. Rather, it allows us to see things that we otherwise miss, problems both in the world itself and in the way that we view it. When we see, we question, and these questions lead to the possibility for answers that we can find as we continue our education and beyond.

Justin and Students

Saying Goodbye

As we discussed some of these questions in our last group meeting, one of our group members brought up a good point – while we may question the scale of our impact as teachers, we do know that the personal connections we formed with our students, even for just this brief time period, were genuine. On Tuesday, as we exchanged tearful goodbyes with our students before leaving the Jiguchon School, we felt those connections more keenly than ever. Now, as we refocus our efforts and attention toward our next destination, the Mulmangcho School, we are optimistic about the relationships we can form with those in this new community. But if there’s one thing of which we can be certain, it’s that we’re going to keep questioning – and that’s a good thing.

Until Next Week,



Week 4: Listening Comprehension

All the Things I Couldn’t Say, and All the Things I Heard

To My Jiguchon Students,

You’ve probably figured out by now that Leigh Sunsengnim (Teacher) really likes to talk. You know the drill – every morning, Joy Sunsengnim and I start class with that loud exclamation of, “Hello, everyone!” and then I’m off at 100 miles an hour, throwing new English words at you left and right. You’re probably tired of the sound of my voice, and I get that. But I was told before I came to you that my voice would be the best gift I could give to you. After all, the best way to learn a new language is to hear it from a native speaker, right? Leigh Sunsengnim, being the talker that she is, had no problem with that instruction. If that was the gift I could give, I wanted to give it to you every day, as much as I could.

I found rather quickly that I had a lot to say to you, and almost as quickly, I found out that I had no way to say it. I could introduce myself to you in Korean, but that was about it. It was like I could give you an outline on a blank piece of paper but had no way to tell you how to color in the lines. My greatest gift to you didn’t seem so great after all. And so Leigh Sunsengnim stepped back, shut her mouth, and did something more important than talking – she listened.

I think when I was in elementary school, I thought that my teachers kind of just disappeared into thin air when the final bell rang and then reappeared at school the next morning. I’m not sure if you think that about us, but in case you were wondering, we are alive and well all through the evening. No matter where we are, though, our minds usually stay at school. For the entire rest of the day, we spend a lot of time talking about school – what worked in class, what didn’t, what we hope for, what we fear. Mostly, though, we talk about you. We talk about how you are each day, if you seem happy or sad, how much you seemed to like the lesson. We share our silly, happy memories of you, and if you seemed upset, we wonder about how we can help. And let me tell you something about your other seven Duke teachers – they’re really smart, and they care about you a lot. In fact, they are so smart and so passionate that when Leigh Sunsengnim just stopped and listened to them, really heard what they had to say about you, she began to see you in a new way. When the Korean-speaking teachers mentioned something you had said that day, I started to understand why you acted the way you did. When someone saw you finally break down crying after being bullied, I realized how strong and resilient you are. Let me tell you, I am so, so happy that I stopped to listen.

Don’t worry, though, I haven’t changed that much. This is still Leigh Sunsengnim, and she still really likes to talk. Tuesday is our last day of class, and I have so much still to say to you – but I guess that language barrier isn’t going away anytime soon, is it? So for all the things I couldn’t say to you, this is what I hope:

I hope you know how nervous I was on the first day of class.

I hope you know how happy I was the first time one of you smiled at me.

I hope you know how relieved I felt when I started speaking Chinese that first day in art class, and you actually understood.

I hope you know that I’ve saved all of the artwork you’ve given me.

I hope you know that I understand you were irritated when I made you spell that word one more time, and I hope you know how proud I was when you got it right.

I hope you know that no matter how cranky I am in the morning, I always leave school happy.

I hope you know how sorry I am for every time that I messed up in class and couldn’t keep your attention.

I hope you know how sorry I am that I’m not a trained teacher and couldn’t give you the best possible English education.

I hope you know how sorry I am that I can’t stay with you another week. Another month. Another year.

For those of you who speak Chinese, I hope you know how much I loved our conversations, how much I cherished the parts of your lives that you were willing to share with me. For those of you who don’t, I hope you know how often I cursed myself for not being able to speak your mother tongue.

I hope you know how much your teachers care about you, that we think about you every day, even on the weekends. That when we leave, it doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten you. That we never will.

And my sweet, sweet children, I hope you know that we listened. That we heard you. We heard your hardship. We heard your difficulties. We listened, and we saw you. We saw your brilliance and your creativity. We saw your tenacity and your strength. The next time you feel invisible, just know that we saw you. I saw you. I see you. And I see something beautiful.

I hope you know that I’ve written over 900 words, but it’s not enough. And neither was three weeks. But that’s okay because I met you, I saw you, and I listened to you.

And dang it, I hope you learned at least a little English.


Leigh Sunsengnim

Week 3: FOMO

When eight people all live together, they end up sharing a whole lot. Unfortunately, one of the things that our group has shared is sickness. Starting about a week and a half ago, a contagious sore throat began to spread through our group, knocking each of us over in turn like we were a bunch of dominoes. By last Monday, three of us were stuck in our apartment, eating mainly porridge and taking Ibuprofen to alleviate our pain.  Having a sore throat definitely wasn’t fun, but the sickness that I felt most keenly was FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out.

On Monday, which was a national holiday, I sat in bed fuming, wishing I could join the rest of the group as they went out to eat and have fun together. The next day, the first day back to Jiguchon after the long weekend, my frustration only heightened as the group’s five healthy members headed off to school. Not only was I leaving both of my teaching partners to teach our classes alone, but I was missing a demonstration class from our professor, from whom I could’ve learned and then given my own teaching methods some much-needed improvement. While I knew that the students’ health was first priority, and I certainly couldn’t risk making any of them sick, I hated failing to perform my job at Jiguchon, even for just one day. As I sat there, watching the minutes crawl by, I realized how important one day really was.

Our time at the Jiguchon School spans the course of 16 school days. Of those, we spend 14 days teaching (13 in my case). As long as some of our busy days may seem, our time at this school really is fleeting. Each of our days at Jiguchon is actually quite a significant portion of our time there. Luckily, I was able to return to the school the next day, and I am feeling much healthier (yes, Mom, I’m still taking my antibiotic). However, the nagging feeling of FOMO just wouldn’t leave me alone – but this time, it wasn’t for me.

Yuri's Drawing of Me

Me, By Another Student

I spent a lot of my time in my last post talking about the Jiguchon kids and how much I had already come to care about them. This week, my affection for them has only grown, but more importantly, I’m starting, just a bit, to understand them. The child who refuses to listen and answer questions doesn’t do so because she’s a “bad student” but rather because she just doesn’t think she could get the answer right. The student who constantly disrupts class with some antic or another probably just wants some attention. I’m learning what makes them smile, which activities they like best, and which teaching methods just won’t get anyone’s attention (most of them). As I realize all this, I also realize that I only have seven days left of teaching at the Jiguchon School. Just as I am beginning to build personal relationships with my students, I am leaving them. This experience, oddly, is a microcosm of what happens at Jiguchon, where a high rate of turnover among instructors means that the students do not often have the same teacher for extended periods of time. Even the teacher coordinating our program, whose hard work and expertise have been indispensable during our time here, has only worked at Jiguchon for about three months. I feel FOMO, but this time it’s for the kids, for the kind of mentorship and support that, in my short time here, I just can’t provide for them.

At the DukeEngage Academy, the two-day series of training workshops required for participation in a DukeEngage program, we discussed the ethics of service abroad and of understanding our place in the communities we were coming to serve. I know I am not here to make some huge change at Jiguchon, but I can’t help but feel like my students might be missing out on a better experience of having teachers who stay for a longer period of time. But then I see the smiles and chorus of “Hello!” that greet us every morning as we pass students on the way to our classrooms. I see my group members playing with the students, wiping their tears, and dissolving into laughter as they pick them up and twirl them around. I see the beautiful artwork that my art students draw and present to me proudly at the end of class. I see all the happiness that students and teachers are giving each other, and I know that this experience, while brief, is nonetheless genuine.

Justin and Michael

Justin with a Student

My concerns about the length of our time here still stand, but I know that in the seven days I have left here, I can still build personal relationships through the small interactions that happen a thousand times each day. FOMO is a real affliction, but if I spend all my time worrying about ways that the students might be missing out, I’ll fail to give them my all for the time that I have with them. As we enter our last full week at the Jiguchon School, every second will count – so I have to use them.

‘Til next week,


Week 2: Never Grow Up

I have about the maturity level of an eight-year-old.

Anyone who knows me can attest to that. My acquaintances would confirm it. My close friends would say that’s an overestimation. Pretty much everyone in my life knows that no matter how old I get, I will always be a child at heart – and because of that, it has taken me less than a week to fall in love with the students at the Jiguchon School.

Our group has spent five days at this alternative elementary school for multicultural children, which is situated on the outskirts of Seoul. Because South Korean society is largely ethnically homogenous, children of multicultural backgrounds are a particularly vulnerable population. The Jiguchon School, funded entirely by donations, provides these students with a special educational pathway before they enter into the South Korean public school system. The role of our DukeEngage cohort at Jiguchon is to teach English and various extracurricular classes as part of a three-week “Duke University English Camp.” Even during our observation days on Monday and Tuesday, we could easily see the students’ infectious good cheer and seemingly endless amounts of energy. However, it wasn’t until Wednesday, our first official day of teaching, that we began to really get to know this group of kids.


The Jiguchon School

As soon as we began teaching, everyone in our group realized that our time at Jiguchon would not be without its challenges. Our English classes are divided into four levels – A, B, C, and D. I teach the Level A class for beginning English learners with Joy Kim, another rising junior. The Level A kids, most of whom are in the first, second, and third grades, have absolutely boundless amounts of energy. While many of them channel this excitement into their learning, it can be difficult to keep them in their seats or even inside the classroom! Moreover, due to special classes and other external factors that do not operate around the schedule of our English camp, our class can go from having about fifteen students to just one in the span of 40 minutes. So far, the one rule of elementary school teaching seems to be that nothing will go exactly how we planned it. Whether it’s changing lesson plans at the drop of a hat to maintain our students’ interest or quickly restructuring the class to accommodate new students when our class size suddenly doubles, we have experienced no shortage of challenges during our first three days of teaching.

In my case, these difficulties have been exacerbated by the fact that my Korean is about as limited as my students’ English. Luckily, Joy is very proficient in Korean and can keep control of the class and field students’ questions. However, when we have to make a change to our daily lesson, I sometimes find myself standing timidly at the front of the classroom with a massive language barrier blocking the way between my class and me. More than once, I’ve wondered if I’m really the right person for the job, telling myself, “these kids deserve more than to be taught by someone who doesn’t really know their native language.” Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if I, an outsider to this community, am really qualified to help it. At our group meeting on Thursday night, I brought up my concerns to our program director, Professor Haeyoung Kim, who told me to focus more on one-on-one interactions with students at the times when Joy is leading the class in Korean.

During class on Friday, I took Professor Kim’s advice and sat down with the students as we made flashcards for the letters A through E. I spent a lot of time with one student in particular, who had been struggling a bit with the day’s lesson. At first, as we spelled the word “Apple” on his “A” flashcard, he repeatedly told me, “mollayo” (몰라요), meaning, “I don’t know.” After we worked for some time, though, his repeated declarations of “mollayo” became fairly accurate pronunciations of the letters. It was a fairly small accomplishment but just then, at the end of the week, I felt like I could really do some good work for the next few weeks at Jiguchon.

Sophia's Drawing.jpg

Me, as Drawn By One of My Art Students

Language is probably my greatest difficulty at Jiguchon, but ironically, it is also my greatest asset. Because Jiguchon is a multicultural school, many of the kids are Chinese or have parents who are. In fact, some kids are most comfortable speaking Mandarin, but many of the teachers at Jiguchon only speak Korean. Imagine my students’ surprise when their American teacher starts speaking in (fairly decent) Mandarin! Though I still can’t speak with every student, I’ve been able to get to know some of them so much better by talking to them in Mandarin.

… and what amazing kids they are. These kids are creative and engaged and excited and ready to learn. They are sweet and kind and caring and so, so special. Even after a long, trying week, when a friend or family member asks me about the Jiguchon kids, I can’t stop gushing. We leave for Jiguchon early in the morning, and I usually spend the entire hour-long subway ride in a tired silence, but as soon as I see the kids, I am so energized and ready to begin the day. Whether it’s playing silly games, drawing beautiful artwork, or making a small breakthrough in English class, they seem to have surprises up their sleeves every single day. I may be an eight-year-old at heart, but it’s okay, because I’ve found my people.

See you next week!

– Leigh