PUUM, the Undergraduate Student Council (USC), and KAIST International Students Association (KISA) have historically been separate entities, operating as the student-run administrative bodies for the Korean and international students respectively. Funding for clubs, operational budgets, and planning for activities and events have been conducted independently by the two organizations. However, with the collection of student fees from international students beginning this semester, the USC has attempted to include KISA as a special autonomous organization within the USC. Unfortunately, the motion to officially include KISA in the USC failed to reach any committee. [The details of this merger is covered in depth in the front page of this month’s The KAIST Herald]. To find out about the two sides to this issue, The KAIST Herald sat down with the head of the International Secretariat of the USC Hyoungwook Jin and the President of KISA Sanzhar Kerimbek.
Please briefly introduce yourself.
My name is Hyoungwook Jin, and I am currently the Head of the International Secretariat (IS) and the Translation Monitoring Committee (TMC) of the USC.
In the past, has the USC attempted to work with/for the international community in any capacity?
Before the USC started collecting student fees from international students, it was difficult to devote manpower to plan and work with the international community. Nonetheless, sometime in 2015 or 2016, the IS was formed in order to help the international students with administrative or policy issues. In 2017, we expanded our efforts, and for the first time translated all the booklets, info packets, and leaflets into English and distributed them to the incoming fall 2017 international students. The TMC began, at the start of this year, to pressure every department and school in KAIST to translate all their notices, announcements, and posts into English, especially on their Facebook pages. We oversee these plans and are working to gain the administrative authority to penalize those departments that ignore this process.
In addition, we are currently having closed discussions with small groups of international students in order to hear out any of their concerns, suggestions, and issues, discussions which we hope will be helpful, not only for ourselves in doing our job, but also for Korean students on campus. Also, we are planning to generate surveys for international students and Korean students who come from foreign high schools to find out how to better help with their academics here at KAIST, especially concerning the fact that they start one semester “late” according to the Korean system and may therefore face scheduling conflicts for certain major courses.
Has the USC cooperated with KISA in any capacity?
Last year, the USC provided some funding for the KISA-organized International Food Festival in order to encourage more Korean student participation. And, of course, we recently attempted to work with KISA regarding the collection of student fees and formal involvement of KISA in the USC.
Could you briefly go through the process that led to collecting student fees from international students?
At the end of last year, the USC talked with the school and KISA to collect student fees from international students. But the timing was too late, so we all decided to start collecting from the start of the next semester, which was last semester. However, the school requested a reevaluation of this new policy last semester, and as the USC underwent a change in administration, things got delayed. Also, KISA had to rectify some documents but they were late. Therefore, during the summer break, the USC worked to push through this decision with or without KISA and it was finally put into action this semester.
What is the procedure for registering KISA as a special organization?
In order to register any group as a special autonomous organization, a motion must be put on the agenda at the Student Representatives Meeting (SRM), which is the largest meeting of representatives at KAIST, including all club presidents, student heads of all departments and schools, the USC, etc. To put a motion on the agenda at the SRM, that said motion must first be passed by the Central Operations Committee (COC). And to submit a motion on the agenda of the COC, several documents must be in order, one of them being a list of signatures from 250 international students.
When and how did the USC decide to include KISA within its operations?
To go over some of our history, a few years back, there were international students within the executive branch of the USC, but the system failed to work as communication within the USC faltered. As a solution, the USC formed the IS to act as a bridge between the rest of the USC and the international community. Thus, for the past two years, the IS has been attempting to bring KISA into the fold as to properly represent the international community. We previously signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with KISA, but it was not binding in any way and quickly fell apart mainly due to poor communication from KISA’s past cabinets.
So at the start of this year, the USC’s general direction was to construct an alternative plan. However, since I became head of the IS, I decided to try and include KISA by making it a special autonomous organization within the USC. And the new KISA president this year was significantly more open to cooperation and easier to communicate with. At the start of this year, we met once every week and shared useful information. But after the summer break, it got more difficult to get into contact with KISA and things eventually reached this conclusion.
Why did the USC try to include KISA?
The main reason was communication. It is not easy for the USC to contact the international community effectively and efficiently so we needed a proper channel for communications, and we believed that this was KISA. Also, since the USC is mostly comprised of Korean students, we are quite disconnected from the international community. Having KISA as a part of the USC would help us get more information and gain a better understanding of what the international students need from the school. We realize that the USC must work for all KAIST students and thought that we would be best suited to do so with KISA.
How was this expected to change the funding for KISA and the events that they organize?
If this merger had been successful, KISA would simply have become a special organization within the framework of the USC and would have maintained their autonomy. So on the outside, KISA would not change; ISSS would continue to fund them and all its events. The only difference would have been that KISA would receive an additional budget from the students fees now collected from all KAISTians. In a way, we wanted to formally include KISA into the USC so that we could be justified in sharing the student fee budget and working together to use it. Now that the merger has failed, the IS will be managing this money, using it for the international community at KAIST.
Why did the motion end up failing?
KISA was unable to procure the necessary 250 signatures from the international community so we could not even put the motion on the agenda.
Is the USC going to pursue this again?
From what I understand, the SRMs convene once every year, so the next time that this issue could possibly even be brought up would be the fall semester of next year. I could be wrong, or the schedule could change, but so far, that is my understanding of the situation. Also, the current USC and KISA executives and I will no longer be in power next year, so the entire process might have to start from scratch if this were to be pursued again.
What do you think should be the future of the USC, in relation to the international community at KAIST?
I think that instead of one general IS, each of the many divisions of the USC should have an international secretariat dedicated to working with and for international students for the particular division’s roles.
Do you think international students could join the USC?
I think that, for the time being, it would be difficult due to the nature of the USC and KAIST.
There was an open discussion/forum session with the President of KAIST last semester but a significant portion of the international community was unaware that such an event even took place. What do you think the problem was in delivering the message to all students?
We informed KISA about this event and from what I have heard, five of its members attended. On our part, I think it was difficult to effectively promote this event to the international students because we realized that it typically requires a different medium than the ones we use to communicate with the majority of Korean students. For instance, I have heard that many international students do not follow our Facebook page or use Facebook at all, and some students don’t have phone numbers. We have started to use email to reach them, which, we are realizing, is a better method. However, we are also struggling to communicate more directly with the international community as our main connection is through KISA.
Is there anything that you would like to say to the students at KAIST?
To the international students: I realize that adapting to a new environment and country is tough and can be disorientating at times. However, I believe that you should put a bit more effort into establishing your voice at KAIST. Even if you feel like it might cause an unnecessary stir on campus, you should take the initiative to let your voice be heard, especially by talking to us.
Please briefly introduce yourself.
I am Sanzhar Kerimbek, the current KISA president.
Could you give us a short summary how this merger started?
I think it started last semester in May. Hyoungwook Jin from the USC approached me with this proposal and said that KISA needed to get 250 signatures.
Why did KISA agree to become a part of the USC?
In order to get a room for KISA in the Chang Young Shin Student Center (N13-1), we have to be part of the USC. Also, I think KISA by itself doesn’t have a lot of power to do things. Usually, people think of KISA as an event organizer, but actually, we are not supposed to do things like that. KISA stands for an association so it’s not an event organizing club. Basically, we have to be the voice of the international students, and represent them to the school administration. So to have more power, we have to be part of the whole USC. That is why I decided to be, not under them, but a part of them.
Did you think that there were any disadvantages to joining the USC?
What did you want to do by joining the USC — something that you think couldn’t have been done otherwise?
So last semester, with Hyoungwook Jin, we were thinking about increasing the KAIST scholarship for international students because that number didn’t change since 2009. It is currently 350,000 KRW per month but I think that’s not enough. Especially because a lot of the international students studying here are not from developed countries but from developing countries. Some students receive their scholarship from the Korean government, which is around 800,000 KRW per month and that’s enough money to live on. So we were trying to raise the KAIST scholarship to somewhere in between the two.
Another issue was the campus food, especially for vegetarians and halal diets, since there are very limited options for both. And the international kitchen is inadequate for the increasing number of international students. So by joining the USC, I think it would have been easier to reach the school administration.
Would the relationship between KISA and ISSS have changed if you had joined the USC?
No, no changes at all.
According to the USC, the motion to register KISA as a special autonomous organization failed because there were not enough signatures. To confirm, did KISA fail to get 250 signatures?
Why did KISA fail to get the signatures?
We didn’t have enough time to get 250 signatures.
How much time were you given?
First, they told us to collect 250 signatures during the summer vacation. But during that time you can barely see international students on campus so that was pretty much impossible. Then they kept silent about the signatures, and about two weeks after school started, Hyoungwook Jin asked me, “Did you collect the signatures?” and “Can you collect them by September 21?” But yeah, we couldn’t do it.
[Simeneh S. Gulelat, Head of Intl. Division] But even after the semester started, as an international student, I can say that we were not notified about this situation. If you had distributed the information, I think that it would have been much easier.
The thing is, after the vacation ended, Hyoungwook Jin was silent, so I thought that it didn’t work out and that we weren’t part of the USC. Then, he just asked me after two weeks whether I collected the signatures. After that, he just kept silent and I thought, “What is going on?”
According to some KISA members, they were not even aware of this signature requirement. Did you tell them to help? If not, why didn’t you?
I thought that they were pretty busy because I was also fairly busy last week. And so I thought that I shouldn’t disturb them.
So you tried to do it yourself?
What do you think about the USC collecting student fees from international students?
I heard from international students that they don’t think it’s a good idea. But a lot of the activities organized by the USC actually require you to pay the student fee. So, when international students tried to participate, they were told, “Oh, you didn’t pay the fee,” and they couldn’t join. But now international students can participate in those kinds of events.
Now that the motion has failed, KISA will be unable to be directly involved in the decision making processes of how the international student fees will be used. What do you think about this?
Financially, I don’t think we need that money because KISA is funded by ISSS.
But the USC will still be collecting the fees from international students with or without KISA, and there are no international students in the USC. So essentially, they will be using your money without any direct representation from international students. How do you respond to this?
I think that is pretty much okay. Because as an international student, to take part in any activity organized by the USC, we need to pay the student fee. Since we also want to take part in those activities, I think it’s pretty logical that we have to pay the fee. So I don’t think that KISA’s involvement in the management of the fees is that important because that money is going to be used by the USC for those activities that they are organizing. For the activities we host, we get funding from ISSS so I don’t see a problem with the USC using that money.
To clarify, you are okay with this without any international students directly represented in the USC?
Yes, because I think they will contact KISA asking for advice.
Is there anything that you would like to say to the students at KAIST?
To international students, I think it’s really important to learn, not only basic Korean, but also intermediate-level Korean because you are living in a foreign country that is paying for your education. So you have to show your respect by learning to understand their language a bit. Most of the words on posters are not that difficult to understand if you learn a bit of Korean during your four-year undergraduate education. That is my advice for international students.
For Korean students, I think they should be a little bit more brave in approaching international students.