As schools across the U.S. began to close due to COVID-19 in mid-March, I was in the unique position of transitioning into online classes while already having had some experience taking fully online classes. The year before, I had completed SPICE’s Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP), an intensive online course focusing on Japanese culture, history, and U.S.–Japan relations; participating in the Sejong Korea Scholars Program (SKSP), an equivalent program, I thought, would be a similar experience.
Yet, being part of the SKSP in the midst of a pandemic framed the way I participated in and learned from the class. As the course went on, we began each Virtual Classroom with a brief discussion on COVID-19, talking amongst ourselves how we were personally doing, and how Korea was handling it as compared to the U.S. We were encouraged to read local news in Korea to learn about COVID-19, and we brought our learnings to each discussion with renewed vigor. There’s a strange and harrowing feeling you get when analyzing the course of a virus in your home country and across the Pacific—an implicit understanding that this isn’t just a research text to pore over, but an unprecedented moment in history we’re living through.
But back to the beginning. After participating in the RSP, I realized how essential it is to analyze stories from all facets.
RSP first introduced me to the concept that “history is told from the winner’s perspective,” and SKSP gave me the opportunity to delve deeply into that. I became intrigued with how history is taught and wanted to understand the “other” sides of stories I learned about in my textbooks. Weeks later, when we learned about the Japanese exploitation of Korean comfort women during World War II, I knew that learning about these issues from one side would simply not be enough to fully comprehend parts of history such as these. The way I learn history directly impacts how I view society and the relationships between groups of people.
Hence, each of the modules helped me craft a multifaceted perspective of Korea and U.S.–Korea relations. The lessons and lectures allowed me to understand and re-interpret modern and historical issues in a global context. From Shamanism’s evolving role in Korean society, to Japanese colonial rule in Korea, to the social impacts of the Miracle on the Han River, to class and socioeconomic strata in Korean education systems, I dove into a plethora of topics through readings, lectures, and class discussions. As a high school student, I never believed I would have the honor of learning from distinguished scholars and experts, but SKSP introduced me to a variety of academics with clear passions for Korean history and culture. My learning extended beyond lectures: in discussion boards, I learned from my classmates, who shared their diverse perspectives and experiences and fostered an inclusive and challenging learning environment. We were given the chance to analyze material on our own through readings and assignments, but it was in these virtual interactions with my peers that I discovered the most. The open and constructive group that Dr. Jang and Mr. Edman facilitated was one where we could respectfully engage with one another on any topic while acknowledging at the end of the day the friendships and bonds we’d made. Thus, I paired my self-led education from SPICE with that of my public schooling and constructed a greater comprehensive understanding of the world.
However, it was the Korean War and North Korea units that I believe played the greatest role in not only my intellectual development, but also my personal and political growth. These two units coalesced in my final research paper project, in which I wrote about the critical role of student activism in South Korean democratization. During my research and readings, I analyzed how the March First Movement set the stage for South Korean protest culture and democratization. I recognized that of the two factions of activists post March First, I might have been in the more radical faction, the one that ended up becoming North Korea. This realization, combined with the readings and lectures from the North Korea unit, completely changed my view of geopolitics in Korea. I learned about the U.S.’s role in the Korean War, and subsequently the Western portrayal of North Korea as a rogue, renegade state. I wondered, how much are we to speak about propaganda when students like me are taught lessons that shield Western imperialism with saviorism and American exceptionalism?
SKSP is not simply a fleeting online course with a broad overview of Korea, but an unparalleled opportunity to uncover Korea on an academic level few other high school students have. I hadn’t expected to undergo a personal and political reckoning within myself, but it is because of this growth that I am beyond grateful for SKSP, Dr. Jang and Mr. Edman’s instruction and advising, and all of my peers’ questions and discussions. Since then, I haven’t ceased to continue kindling my interest in Korean history and politics, questioning previously held beliefs, and broadening my worldview. And it is especially during a time like this—a global movement of Black Lives Matter, a local movement to change my high school’s Indigenous emblem, and everything in between, all within the context of a pandemic—that it is so crucial for me to critically analyze what I’ve been taught, and to keep learning as much as I can. In SKSP, I’ve developed the skills necessary to do so. It’s the “other sides” of stories, namely non-Western and non-white, that I am committed to studying, since understanding the nuances of the past can help guide us into a more equitable future.
Next fall, I begin at Stanford, hopefully on campus—it feels like coming full circle, having the privilege to attend college in an institution that first allowed me to foster a genuine love for learning. Now, while many of my friends begin their college careers, I have chosen to take a gap year with the U.S. Department of State’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a rigorous and competitive academic scholarship to study a critical language abroad. As of August, the in-country program has been pushed back to 2021 due to COVID-19, but I hope to find myself in Seoul in a few months. With everything ahead of me, I know SKSP is only the beginning, as I hope to continue bridging my education to the world.