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A Fault That Runs Deep Both Ways
[ Issue 148 Page 7 ] Saturday, November 19, 2016, 04:06:06 Simeneh S. Gulelat International Reporter simeneh@kaist.ac.kr

     For an international student, the plight of adapting to the KAIST environment adds burden to the existing problems he/she must inevitably face having entered a new country. Foreigners who come to KAIST every semester arrive with the intention of building healthy social relationships with Koreans and their customs, but sadly they are met with an attitude of indifference that emanates from their local counterparts.

     I understand the notion which typifies international students as an individuals too apathetic to stand up and voice their opinions for themselves and apparently to be fueling their own social paralysis. However, this very concept but reveals yet another fact I wish to address: how the international community is so disorganized in itself that not only do the students face impediments in integrating but are also too separated from one another to discuss their problems and give an organized opinion to the authorities.

     The authorities do not acknowledge that the policies the school uses to run the student body have created factions among the internationals and Koreans. In KAIST, a student from China or Vietnam would find it easier to socialize with someone from Scandinavia than they do with a local Korean even though the former student comes from a place similar in culture and demography to Korea. This speaks volumes about how the Korean student body council acts without regard to the outsiders amidst them.

     The language issue is so baseless that I’m surprised it still pops up as a probable argument. The Korean side of the argument still claims that foreigners ought to put in the necessary work to learn the language and be part of the community. The points I touched upon above have been mentioned in a previous debate, which took a life of its own and debilitated into something of a spectacle on social media. A couple of individuals have voiced their opinions that going through a rigorous year-long study of the language has not allowed them to blend smoothly into Korean society, as they’d hoped it would.As the students who have progressed in their Korean language studies have said, their particular knowledge of Korean has not helped them jump over the barricade of miscommunication and smoothly integrate into the local student body. They argue that the school’s policies are geared in a way that place incoming Korean and international students in separate baskets. Therefore, it so happens that even if someone is fluent, he/she still has to clear over a lot more hurdles of bureaucracy and administrative trifle to be part of the community.

     What is KAIST doing to alleviate the cultural strain international students quite often face? Not much, other than treating them like cogs in the nutating wheel to help drag its global rankings a few points up. It’s no wonder foreigners feel like mere placeholders. To understand how the school fails to mobilize its resources to the fullest, one needs to only acknowledge the presence of exchange students in our campus. Will the school require them to improve their Korean (assuming they know the basics) to be allowed to join student clubs and services or will the school pin their failure to assimilate on their apathy or laziness? Many student clubs would rather not have a foreigner as a member because having a foreigner amongst them can be quite the nuisance.

     Moreover, it is not just foreigners who are continuously gauged for their Korean language proficiency. Every KAIST student, be it a local or an outsider, joins the institute only after having displayed a bare minimum capacity to communicate in English. They even have the TOEFL scores to show for it. Therefore, a student who has taken up English since grade school should have no more of a problem communicating in English than the fellow who arrived in the country and is new to the language. It shouldn’t be that hard for Koreans to speak their minds in a language they have studied for years.

     On a closing note, I’d like to point out that KAIST is a global university. Students who attend the institute are global citizens. They learn to work and engage with colleagues from across the world. Language being the primary prerequisite is critical, to say the least, and it’s best that both parties put in work to meet halfway. But, it is irrational to put the blame on the apathy of foreign students when KAIST itself is hammering the wedge that separates the Korean and international communities with its skewed policies that treat Korean and foreign students as elements of different demographics.

Simeneh S. Gulelat International Reporter Archives  
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