My first semester at KAIST never existed. Plato’s theory of Forms argues that it is the idea and not the material world of change that possesses the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. In high school, the image I had of college was far from that of studying at KAIST. Getting accepted into college was like knocking desperately on mystical wooden doors, searching for the door that would lead me to the yellow brick road bringing me to the States. KAIST had simply never been one of those doors. My first semester at KAIST never existed.
Then fate intervened and all of a sudden, I found myself registering for KAIST. After a while, I was attending lectures, making acquaintances, and handing in assignments. However, it felt like I was living the life of some stranger, walking in shoes I never had time to grow into. I refused to study in Korea.
Fate turns cruel when you feel like someone trapped inside a glass cube. You watch the world outside of you, dream about the world you never get to be part of - confined forever to watch the world outside, the world you were never destined for.
But perhaps, what is meant will always find its way.
Memories of my first semester ebb and flow over time. The one subject I remember the most is General Biology taught by Professor Kang. It had something special I couldn’t describe. He would always start the lecture by reviewing what we had learned the previous lecture and then teach us the materials on the prepared blue PowerPoint slides. The professor always tried to get us more involved in the lecture. It seemed different from the orthodox Korean teaching methods and different from the preconceived image of a Korean university. He tried to teach us to become qualified scientists and engineers. It inspired me.
There was this phrase he kept on repeating again and again. It was this phrase which reminded me why I opted to come back to Korea instead of studying in the States. South Korea had yet to produce a Nobel Prize in physics, whereas there were numerous winners teaching in universities in America. I wanted to become a good physicist regardless of the cost. But, for how long did Asian students have to compete to get into top notch universities in the States, competing amongst themselves under an invisible quota? If KAIST would ever become one of the first tier research institutions, I wanted it to happen now and I wanted to be part of it. The image of an older myself publishing papers in science journals still floats above me. Now it is just time to get there.
Recently I saw Professor Kang at a shop. I was standing in line when I saw the familiar bespectacled calm face approaching the glass entrance. Unsure if he would recognize me and unable to take my eyes off him, I gave him a shy nod. He looked back, recognized me, and smiled. At that moment I was back inside the familiar lecture room. He was repeating the words which had reinvigorated my desire to study at KAIST. But right at the moment when he was going to say that phrase, his voice was drowned by the voice of Gwen Stefani shouting from the speakers inside the bread store.
“If I could escape, recreate a place that’s my own world…”