South Korean intern challenges cultural norm to find life’s passion in Frankfort

Bryan Reynolds | State Journal

Namkyung Joh, 25, lived the first two decades of her life as a dutiful South Korean daughter following the cultural norm of working hard in K-12 and college to get a job at a prestigious business. When it came time to apply for those businesses Joh had a epiphany and decided to search for her passion instead, which she found during an internship at Frankfort Independent Schools.

An intern from Seoul found her life’s purpose while working for Frankfort Independent Schools.

Namkyung Joh, 25, spent her youth as a dutiful child following the predetermined path all South Korean children are expected to follow. She worked hard to get good grades and test scores in kindergarten through high school and went to a prestigious university, Ewha Womans University where she earned a degree in Korean music and another in international office administration. She was expected to continue that path by getting a good job at a prestigious South Korean company, get married and have children.

Instead, she challenged social norms and followed her own path, which led her to Frankfort and FIS.

“I studied really hard to get GPA to get a good job after I graduated college,” Joh said. “At the time I was a senior and I had to prepare myself to get a job. I was kind of stuck at the time. So I questioned myself: Have I thought of what I want to do with my life?”

Joh looked for something she could be creative and passionate about, rather than follow the expected route. She applied for a job at German company ElastoMetal LLC, which has a Frankfort office.

While attending a Korean Cultural Event at The Learning Center in Lexington she met Dr. Ron Chi, FIS chief academic innovation officer. After talking to him about his work, she expressed interest in an internship and he gave it to her. It was during the internship she discovered what she wanted to do with her life.

“I found my passion area,” Joh said. “I want to help students find their passion areas during their time in K-12.”

Education is important in South Korea. A person’s future is truly determined by K-12 test scores and grades and college major, she said. Competition throughout education is fierce, as is competition to get a job at prestigious companies like Samsung.

Because of that competition, South Korean parents have certain expectations for their children, Joh said.

Kindergarten through 12th grade isn’t much different structurally from American schools.

“We have subjects that we have in here, the United States, as well, like mathematics, we have Korean instead of English, science and classes in IT,” Joh said. “It looks the same, the subjects, but how deeply students study is different.”

Students are aiming to attend S.K.Y., the three most prestigious universities in South Korean: Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University. Those three universities are the Ivy League of South Korea and there is a limit on the number of admitted students.

To achieve that goal students push themselves during school hours and after. Families can pay for their children to attend Hakwon, an after-school advanced learning program. Students learn subjects one grade level above the one they are in. For instance, a seventh-grader can learn eighth-grade mathematics.

Students take a national standardized test called Suneung in Korean, but it’s only offered once a year. The South Korean government offers a mock test so students can see how well they will do and prepare for the real one, Joh said. The grade made on the test can determine the college students are able to attend, so students and parents are sensitive about it too, she said.

The job market is as competitive as education in South Korea, as their companies only hire, and accept resumes, twice a year, Joh said. During these hiring phases, it’s common for tens of thousands of applicants to apply all at once. Extracurricular activities, such as internships, don’t matter much to these businesses. They tend to focus on what an applicant’s major is, she said.

“What I thought was, ‘OK then, let’s work abroad so I can have experiences in foreign countries and get some English skills,” Joh said. “That’s how I came here.”

Joh has been directly involved in the “Profile of a Graduate” project that Chi has been working on. POG is a breakdown of the skills FIS wants students to graduate with beyond the required — like teamwork and grit to stick with projects even after failures, she said.

“What Dr. Chi and (Superintendent Houston) Barber want to do for the kids is very impressive,” Joh said. “Because they are really deeply thinking of kids. How can they learn more and be motivated? How can we find their talents and passion area? I think that’s how I found my passion area to help kids find their passion areas.”

Joh’s internship ends in February, as does her work visa, requiring her to return to South Korea. She is slightly uneasy about the future because she doesn’t have an education major and likely won’t be able to continue in education when she returns, she said. Barber told her she can continue to work with FIS while in South Korea until she returns.

“Ultimately, I want to come back here,” Joh said. “I want to work in here so I can learn more and establish something here that can help students find their passion area. Maybe in 10, 15, 20 years I can do that in Korea as well.”

Chi said his work with FIS and Kentucky State University has been about finding students from areas of society and the education system who are not given the opportunity to discover their passion and to ignite that passion.

“There’s this population we tend to leave alone and Namkyung fits into that population,” Chi said. “The internship was an opportunity to take somebody completely away from the educational system, put them into this new system that we’re designing and for her to give her feedback.”

Joh did work during her internship with FIS she might not have gotten to do during a common internship, including presenting data and findings to 30 superintendents from different school districts. She discovered skills and abilities she never knew about and thrived in a field she never considered pursuing until now, Chi said.


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