Haven for refugees becomes a home for researchers


JMU student Sara Kim writes on a chalkboard as she conducts an English language class
JMU student Sara Kim teaches an English lesson to North Korean refugees in a South Korean alternative school. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Shin Ji Kang)

Getting to help conduct – and then synthesize – research side-by-side with faculty is an invaluable experience for undergraduate students. James Madison University junior Sara Kim and sophomore Steven Kim got to experience this first-hand over the summer when they accompanied Dr. Shin Ji Kang, assistant professor of early, elementary and reading education, on a study abroad trip to Seoul, South Korea, to work with North Korean refugees.

Their destination was the Yeo-Myung School in Seoul, a haven for North Korean refugees. The school teaches educational curriculum, life skills and cultural assimilation for young adults ages 15-25 who have fled their lives in North Korea to live in democratic South Korea.

“The school provides pretty much everything for the students, like housing and three meals a day.  Teachers have multiple roles: they teach, counsel, they’re moms and dads, they do administrative work, they cook and clean,” said Sara. Along with teaching English language lessons to their own classes, the JMU group assisted in cleaning and meal preparation at least one day a week during their six-week trip.

Teaching a classroom full of peers was an unusual but exciting challenge for the JMU students. Steven, an English major, taught the upper-level English class and said, “I was able to connect with the students by being open and friendly with them. If I had started my relationships with them by acting as their teacher from the beginning, it would have been difficult to get closer because of the culture in Korea.”

Sara taught the middle-school level English lessons and tried to relate her curriculum to American pop culture, something the Korean students were very interested in. “I taught them English by learning the lyrics of Pink’s song ‘Cry.’ The lyrics are ‘gotta get up and try’ and it fits so well with their situation. They’re experiencing conflict in so many ways.  Their thinking, behavior, family situation and how they grew up; it sticks with them for the rest of their lives,” said Sara.

Along with teaching and helping at the school, the JMU students assisted their professor in conducting her research on the marginalized population, a special interest for Kang. She is planning on presenting her findings at multiple national and international conferences in the spring and is working on publications regarding the project.

Having such open access to faculty proved to be a major benefit for both students. “In my major (nursing) we don’t do much research, so this was a totally different experience for me.  I would transcribe interviews with the school’s faculty, translate brochures for them, do daily journals, create lesson plans, and then take note of the student’s reactions to lessons, and then my reactions to those same lessons. Research definitely requires more cognitive skills,” said Sara.

Steven felt similarly, “Dr. Kang was very helpful throughout the entire process of conducting research. She would guide us through how to do things, but she was also very open to our input and listening to some ideas that we may have.”

Kang felt the input from the students was invaluable. “I was very fortunate to get to work with Sara and Steven. Of course I struggled at first to conduct research with students with limited training. But as soon as they understood the purposes and procedures of the research in real context, they carried it out successfully! They learned research literally ‘by doing.’ Their first-hand experience and insights were also captured in their journals, which were treated as data. I could have not done it by myself.”

This unique study abroad trip proved to be more than just a learning experience in international culture or research; it truly had a profound impact on the JMU students.

“I learned more from them than they did from me. They got there somehow, they didn’t give up and they are still trying to survive. This makes me realize that I need to be thankful and humble about what I’ve been given; they don’t really say ‘thank you,’ but they know they are lucky and they are grateful,” said Sara.

Steven hopes to return to Korea one day and reconnect with his students, “This experience really reinforced my decision to go to Korea after graduating. My goal is to become a teacher in Korea and after this experience, I can really imagine myself becoming one and sticking with it for a long time.”

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Jan. 3, 2014

By Kelly Vingelis (’14)

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Published: Friday, January 3, 2014

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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