Soo Na Son makes the finishing touches to her outfit before going out on a weekend night. She meets up with her friends, hails a cab and tells the driver where to go for their nighttime destination. But Son, a junior, isn’t heading to one of the bars in Georgetown or the new go-to club in DuPont. Instead, she heads across the Potomac River to Annandale, Va. – the destination of the nearest Korea Town.
Son is part of a thriving population of South Korean students at GW. In 1998, there were 43 undergraduate students from the country – last year there were 143 undergraduates and a total of 250 Korean students at GW. Alumni in Korea currently number around 800, according to a speech University President Steven Knapp gave this summer when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited campus.
But why would a student from Korea choose to travel thousands of miles to attend a school in a country where few speak her language?
“Studying in Korea and getting into a really good university in Korea is very competitive,” Son said. “Here in America, they focus and study but at the same time they exercise and do activities to figure out what you want to be in the future.”
Kathryn Napper, executive dean for Undergraduate Admissions, said Korean students come to GW for the same reasons as other students, but also cited alumni success and status as potential draws.
Students are attracted by alumni who include high-ranking Korean diplomats and entrepreneurs. Korean statesman Suh Jai P’il was the first Korean to graduate from an American medical school, and did so at GW in 1892. Syngman Rhee, founder of the Republic of Korea, graduated from GW in 1907 and received an honorary degree in 1954. Most recently, in 1999 current President Lee was a visiting scholar at GW teaching international business, and was given an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree when he visited D.C. this year.
But it is not just the school’s reputation that draws Korean students. The opportunity to create connections that will provide jobs after graduation is attractive too.
“In Korea, George Washington graduates have stronger connections than any other foreign or United States university,” senior John Kim, president of the Korean Student Association, said. “Harvard is known to be one of the most important universities – not so much in Korea.”
The KSA was established in 2000 to create a job network for members using past GW alumni in Korea as sources of referrals and to aid Korean students looking to intergrate into the GW community.
“Korean culture is very conservative and people who were raised in that community sometimes do have some hard time getting allotted to U.S. society,” Kim said.
Some of the events that the KSA holds are aimed specifically at breaking down the barriers between Korean and other students while promoting understanding. Having already hosted a well-attended cross-cultural dinner in August, Kim said he plans on holding other events where Koreans and non-Koreans alike can mingle.
“My goal and our goal is to share our culture as much as we can and to make it known to Korean students that they are accepted in this community and are rightful particles of this wonderful society of GW so they can feel more secure in trying new things,” Kim said.