▲ Ria Kim is looking forward to a new chapter in her life after leaving EPIK. Photo by Alpha Newberry
Love her or not, Ria Kim has left the building.
On June 30th, Kim Young Hee – better known to foreign teachers on Jeju by her English name Ria – finished her duties four years to the day after she started working as the island’s coordinator for the English Program in Korea.
“Working as coordinator was a good chance to meet many people from foreign countries,” Kim said. “I was happy to see them on Jeju Island. I loved my job. I am going to miss EPIK teachers. We got along with each other very well. I made a lot of friends and I can understand their cultures.”
The first things Kim did after leaving the post were to change her cell phone, catch up on sleep and finalize plans for upcoming trips to China for one week and then to Burlington, Ontario, Canada, for two weeks to see one of her sisters.
Her next career step is to start studying in August, focusing on TESOL at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, and soon after obtaining a Master’s Degree. Kim’s long-term goal is to be a lecturer at a university and offer counseling to foreigners.
“All of this was a big challenge for me,” Kim said. ”I was thinking about transitioning last year, but that time was not a good chance to follow through. This year, clearly, is a good chance.”
Being an EPIK coordinator is not an enviable position. The position is that of a liaison between two polar opposites: the Board of Education and the EPIK program’s native speakers. Kim was the messenger between the Korean bureaucracy and foreign employees for whom, culturally, the best idea wins an argument, regardless of the proposer’s gender or age.
“Most of the foreigners live in a freer country,” Kim said. “Korea is not so easy for them. So the coordinator wants to make them more comfortable, safe and helpful.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Korean culture and education is based in Confucianism, and is thus more conservative and vertically structured. Jeju is also traditionally tied to an exclusive island culture and an understandable history of xenophobia.
“There are cultural differences and communication problems,” Kim said of her previous job.
The Jeju native, the second youngest of 10 children in her family, remained mum on topics that generate debate throughout the island, such as Jeju being billed as a Free International City and the Jeju Global Education City, but did offer this advice for her home: “The island needs more places to speak other languages than Korean. Not only at school, but people need time to collect themselves and speak and make mistakes, get better and move on, such as in libraries and other public places.”
When Kim started in 2006, there were 64 EPIK teachers. Today, there are 167.
“After some educational policies, we have gotten more foreigners here,” Kim said. “More focus is on practical speaking. All elementary, middle and high schools now have a native speaker during at least part of the week.”
A graduate of Ehwa Womans University in Seoul, Kim studied, worked and lived in the United States from 1990 to 2000, primarily in San Francisco and New York. Before taking the position as EPIK coordinator, she was a teacher at a GnB English Institute.
Kim cites four improvements that were made to Jeju’s EPIK program while she was coordinator, working with the foreign language team. The Jeju Foreign Language Festival was established in 2007 and the next year, class evaluations were added. In addition, best teachers’ awards are now handed out annually and increased planning was implemented when possible.
Workers for the Board of Education have to follow guidelines from those in the organization with higher authority, Kim explained. “In Korea, we have to do it, and sometimes the next day. But many EPIK teachers are not familiar with the environment of the system. Or short notice. People asked me to do things suddenly and I had to ask EPIK teachers to do things suddenly.”
Such things are now in the past for Kim. Gone are the 60-plus work-hour weeks, not including weekend duties.
Also gone are the daily e-mails and cell phone calls from foreign teachers, which according to Kim, in total averaged about 50 per day.
“As for the challenges, I did my best for all EPIK teachers, even foreigners,” Kim said.
When asked what advice she would have for her replacement, Kim joked: “I feel sorry for her.” After thinking further, she added, “I wish her well in the demanding position.” She added that the amount of work done by the EPIK coordinator is immense and she appreciates the contributions her replacement will make to the island.
Kim spent four years as EPIK coordinator, but none of her predecessors lasted past year one.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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