As a long-time student at our university, I find myself accustomed to hearing a number of issues and concerns voiced time and again on our campus, almost as if it were part of an obscure KAIST tradition. I will refrain from a detailed listing of the oft-raised agenda, but safe to say that the discord between Korean and international students features prominently on it. Recently, I had a great opportunity to take action on my own terms during a graduate course final project. This fall semester’s Technology and Social Justice course called for action on the students’ part for them to step outside of their comfort zones. Inspired by this mission, my teammates and I planned out an audacious but unique attempt at taking action to bring about change in our local environment.
My first thoughts on the project’s direction were towards the international student community - the international students’ concerns and difficulties are major obstacles, and many of the problems I first perceived as an undergraduate freshman in 2009 remain unresolved today. Efforts have been made over the years to address these issues, as the ISSS surveys and other qualitative reports testify, but they all have fallen short of accomplishing their objectives. These surveys and reports only appeal to the upper echelons of KAIST’s administration, such as to the chancellor or the dean of admissions. This propensity to invest solely on a top-down approach understates the potential of a bottom-up, “grass roots” approach. Furthermore, grass roots methods in the case of student issues are more likely to succeed via a student-to-student avenue; students may feel a sense of distance from the university staff and professors who are conducting the surveys and interviews, in which case the students cannot be expected to respond with complete honesty, or even make genuine efforts to help people who, from the students’ perspective, do not see eye-to-eye with them. It is in this regard that I feel our project – a grass roots approach involving students talking to fellow students – can achieve unprecedented success. This article itself, in addition to other actions we have and plan to take, are ways for us to inform the international student body of the value of our strategy and foster their cooperation.
What we have done so far – most notably an open discussion event as well as an online survey – does have its limitations and faults. For one, it cannot stand up to professional academic scrutiny, and thus cannot be used in publications. Furthermore, it has thus far been limited to a process of gathering other students’ input - asking international students to provide us with their perspectives and opinions in both quantitative and qualitative form. From here on, however, our past activities can function as a foundation for better interaction with students, as well as extended dialogue in future sessions that can have a bigger impact. At a personal level, this has been a fresh experience, putting together the whole event from start to finish, contacting hundreds of students and trying to convince them of the importance of our project and securing their participation.
What we have learned thus far is that there exist institutional as well as cultural issues. Failure to recognize these disparate areas can be a dangerous fallacy for the universities’ administration and policymakers. Arguably, KAIST finds itself in a unique position – unlike US universities, its local culture is often in conflict with those of international students, but unlike the top Japanese universities that only admit students fluent in Japanese, KAIST does not enforce international students to adhere to Korean culture. Given this complexity, in order for KAIST to provide a better experience for international students, it must look to examples of institutional globalization policies found in other top Asian universities. HKUST, for example, offers various collaboration opportunities with other regional universities for their international students, while NUS offers a purely voluntary buddy system that attracts the most dedicated students to participate. Rather than attempting to change the Korean students’ culture, which would be a monumental task for any single organization to accomplish, KAIST must identify what assumptions it has made in its academic policies, campus planning and student welfare that inherently place international students at a disadvantage, and address these issues immediately.