Looking Back and Looking Forward

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.

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?

Leigh and Chan Min

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.

Justin and Students

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.

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.


Our Group and Jiguchon Teacher


After an emotional goodbye at Jiguchon, our week started off very heavy. We attended a “Wednesday Demonstration” outside of the Japanese embassy led by a group of protestors who have been protesting for more than 1,000 consecutive Wednesdays. These vehement and unrelenting protestors have been demanding that the Japanese government recognize, take responsibility for, and pay reparations for the human atrocity that was the Comfort Woman system during World War II.

Comfort women were Korean women and girls who had been abducted, kidnapped, or trafficked into Japanese government sponsored Comfort Stations, where Japanese soldiers would form lines to sexually assault these women and young girls. Since the end of WWII, the Japanese government has systematically denied and tried to erase these violations of human rights from their history (along with the Rape and Massacre of Nanjing), and in general the Japanese war crimes are not well-known among the general populous of America.

The demonstration was very moving, there was even a halmoni (what they refer to surviving comfort women as) there, and we watched as demonstrators gave speeches, sang songs, and danced. Afterwards, we visited the Comfort Women museum, located near our Guesthouse. The museum was actually a converted apartment space, personally donated by someone. It was very interesting, and revealed a lot of information that I had never learned before in any history class I had ever taken. The museum wasn’t only restricted to the atrocities committed against Korean women however, and also included a section for the Vietnamese women who the Koreans subjected towards them during their involvement in the Vietnamese war.

What is really shocking about this is that how such a large human rights issue can be just swept underneath a rug. The museum for this was located in a very secluded area, and is not well advertised. I would think that something so tragic would have been commemorated and remembered in a much more visible way. Our group discussed this issue, and many agreed that this issue only is truly visible if you are looking for it.

On Thursday we visited the office of the Mulmangcho school in Seoul. We were able to meet the chairwoman of the foundation and much of the staff that makes operating the school in Yeoju possible. We watched a presentation and were able to ask questions about the students and expectations; something that we learned would be very helpful from our experience at Jiguchon. We are heading out to Yeoju tomorrow and are all looking forward to it! 🙂

The next day, we got to visit the Korean Broadcasting Station near the National Assembly. We got a tour of the station and were able to see many different news and drama sets which was super cool. We also met with a reporter, Mr. Keum, who has made many documentaries on North Korea (he has visited 10 times). Our conversation with him was very enlightening, and we got to learn a lot about the process of visiting and interviewing North Koreans. He was very genuine with his answers and everyone in our group agreed he was an admirable and sweet man. (Also we got to go to the Music Bank rehearsal and we saw Taemin and it was crazy cool thank you Mr. Keum!)

This week was more of transitional one, ending Jiguchon was hard, but this time gave us space to reset and focus on the future, while taking our experiences from the past with us. Although we will all miss our students and the bustling streets of Seoul, we are very excited to see what awaits us in Yeoju.



One thought on “Looking Back and Looking Forward

  1. I enjoyed reading your reflections about your value as teachers- you are DEFINITELY not alone in your concerns! In the position that you are in, it’s easy to question whether or not you are actually adding value, given, as you said, that you are not trained as teachers, not a native of their culture etc. I spent a year teaching in Madrid as part of a Fulbright scholarship and I often felt the EXACT same way when I was there, so I really related to your comments. And when I did Duke Engage in Chile, I also often had somewhat similar reflections.

    I think it’s great that you are thinking critically about your role, that you realize that there are times when perhaps someone else was better-suited to run the classroom or help the children with a particular issue. The fact that you are doing this type of questioning in and of itself likely proves your value to these children. Yes, you may be teaching them formally in the classroom, but just by being there and being you, you are exposing them to new ideas, new perspectives, new cultures. Your students have likely changed the way you view Korea/ Koreans, and you have likely changed the way they view American students. I think this is one big takeaway I had when I went through a similar experience. Just the fact that you are there, reflecting, reevaluating your preconceived notions, learning, ultimately means you are having an impact on those kids in one way or another!


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