Day 5: We do need some educationNovember 12, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C
Tuesday was higher education day. Alice’s mom was a student at Yonsei University in the 1960s. Her best friend was a student at Ewha Womans University just over the hill. Alice’s mom told us about music playing throughout the university back in the day, groups of students hanging out on the hill, and friends walking between the two campuses to meet each other for lunch. Yonsei and Ewha were small, compact schools back then. Both have grown, Yonsei in particular has a massive hospital connected to it now.
Ewha Womans University started as a Methodist mission school under Emperor Gojung in 1886. It was founded by an American woman, Mary F. Scranton, and it is currently the largest female education institution in the world. And it’s Womans…not Women’s. There are many stories as to why, but the most succinct is that “womans” used to be correct. Ewha means “pear blossom”, and that name was bestowed by the emperor.
In 2008, the main promenade of Ewha University was completely reconstructed creating a stunning visual centerpiece for the campus. A wide walkway slowly descends into an urban valley creating a sculptural, central gathering spot. It’s an amphitheater, and a sport field, or a parade route for festivals and celebrations. The “valley walls” are the above ground/underground buildings that serve as the student centers and the classrooms. It is a stunning campus. Sadly, I have no daughters, and I am way too old for university, so we continued onto Yonsei.
On the other side of the hill is Yonsei University, also started as a mission school, and also founded by Americans. It sounds like I’m proud of this. However I am always suspect of American missionaries founding schools abroad. In this case, of course, the Koreans made both of these schools great. Yonsei started from merging the first western medical program in Korea with a Christian college. The name Yonsei is a combination of Yonhi College (originally Chosun Christian College) and Severence Union Medical College.
Yonsei was, when Alice’s mom attended, and still is, one of the three most prestigious universities in Korea. The three most prestigious schools are known as the “SKY Universities.” This is mostly important because I am, and forever will be, an academic snob. Alice too. I always knew that Mrs. Ha came from great academic pedigree as an English literature student.
Today the Yonsei campus is almost unrecognizable to someone who was there in the 60s. Unrecognizable until you walk about a quarter mile through campus and arrive at the beautiful square comprised of the original four or six buildings. The building in which Mrs. Ha spent most of her time is now mostly filled with administration offices. It’s a lovely, ivy-covered, stone building. Since we were there in November, all of the trees were shades of orange and yellow.
We happened to be in Korea during the week of Suneung, the College Scholastic Ability Test, and let me tell you…it is crazy-pants. I mean, these universities might have been founded by Americans, but I can’t imagine an American being able to navigate this system now. It makes us look like the laziest, dumbest people ever (no comment…2020 is making this look even more obvious.)
From Kindergarten, essentially, on…Korean students are preparing for this test. Korean kids go to school, like the rest of the world, but then AFTER school, they go to study centers, or as Alice and I started joking…After-school school. In fact, Alice’s cousin’s kid could not join us for lunch one weekend because she had math tests. She is 12. I Skyped Max that day and told him that I might send him to boarding school in Korea if he ever complained again about math homework.
The Suneung is held on a certain Thursday in mid-November. Every Korean Senior in high school takes the Suneung. The night before the test, the student finds out WHERE they will take the test. It could be an hour train ride away from their normal school. The test is so competitive and they are so worried about cheating, that they don’t tell the kids where to go until the night before!
Seoul is a ghost town the day of the exam. Had we realized this earlier, we would have done ALL the things. All of them. Parents stay home to support the students before and after the exam. Grandparents fill houses of worship to pray for their grandkids. Malls, restaurants, subways are seemingly empty. We learned that they stop ALL air traffic over Seoul during the English listening part of the test. Every news program of the week mentioned the exams and the preparation surrounding it.
The test is graded by December, options are presented to each student, students decide which university to apply to, and students start school by the following March/April. It is a crazy fast process. I now know that Mrs. Ha is amazing…I could never have the academic pedigree if it had been decided by ONE test.
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