When I arrived at the Fulbright building in Seoul, I had no idea what lay ahead. I was nervous. The director, Mrs. Jai Ok Shim, greeted me and introduced me to the staff that immediately put me at ease. The warmth and friendliness in that office were crucial to my Fulbright success because they made sure I had everything I needed any time I had a question during my stay. Every now and the, Mrs. Shim took me to lunch and I later learned what a remarkable woman she was.
It turned out that Mrs. Shim had dedicated almost all of her life to solidifying ties between the US and South Korea. As a young mother, she worked for the Peace Corps in the US and Korea for 10 years and then 40 years for Fulbright in Seoul. That’s 50 years of selfless dedication! Her institutional knowledge was and is invaluable. From her, I learned that Fulbright isn’t just a program to get Americans to foreign countries or to get foreign citizens to the US- it’s a humanitarian mission that can enhance how we all understand each other.
I was on a teaching grant at Dongguk University and taught two American literature classes to wonderful students. The time I spent on campus was enriching and my proudest achievement was convincing my students that coming to office hours was a good thing to do! (It’s not a common practice there.) Through KAEC (the Korean American Education Commission, as the Fulbright Program is called in Korea), I was able to expand my reach beyond the campus of the university and interact with some North Korean defectors who were hoping to attend graduate school in the US.
The small program for the defectors housed at KAEC was run by ETAs and volunteers who were helping the students improve their English and learn about life in the US. I visited their classes a few times, gave a lecture about US graduate school, and spent time taking some of them out for coffee or a meal. I had never met anyone from North Korea before and I was soon impressed by the determination of my new friends to educate themselves in order to provide good lives for their families and have careers that would allow them to make a difference in the world. One of them wanted to become a psychology professor and another wanted to work in the non-profit sector. They told me that going to the US would give them opportunities they couldn’t get in South Korea. I hope they get their chance to come here soon.
Because of this experience, I plan to be working with North Korean defectors who want to come here as undergraduates. I would never have found this path without KAEC, Mrs. Shim and her staff. Her example of bridging our countries and fostering mutual understanding has impacted what I will do the rest of my life.
Marcy Tanter – Fulbright to South Korea 2018