This year marks the 40th anniversary of our school’s founding. Though it may be a time to celebrate 40 years of providing an unparalleled education in science and technology to thousands of students, it is also a time to look back and critically appraise the progress we’ve made while looking forward to the numerous challenges that lie ahead.
During one meeting with Professor Yong-taek Im, the current Vice-President of Special Projects and Institutional Relations, I was asked what I would do to raise the level of pride KAIST students have for their alma mater. Back then I could only stare at the window and the view of the library outside while remaining silent. It had been a question I’d asked myself many times before, and during each of those instances, I’d shelved the question in a quiet corner of my head.
Months later, listening to a lecture by Professor Dong-Won Kim, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, I was told of how KAIST graduates tended to possess an inexplicable attachment to KAIST, even in students who only received their Master’s degrees here. Professor Kim went on to explain that the current issue within our school was that the current student body seems to have lost that attachment. After the lecture ended, I finally had my answer.
What made KAIST special in the mind of its early students was the fact that in a time of military governments, a lower standard of living, and significantly fewer freedoms than those we enjoy today, KAIST gave them a place to develop their passions - at little to no financial cost. To that generation, KAIST was geared to educate the best, and had the facilities to reflect that fact. One particular comment made by Professor Kim, that KAIST was the first encounter many had had with flushing toilets, let alone state-of-the-art lab equipment, made this point appear that much more valid.
However, since then, KAIST has changed. The promise of no tuition has been replaced by a system that increases the monetary sum demanded from students depending on their grades. Coupled with a disturbing increase in negligence towards students’ welfare, of which two very small examples are the lack of curtains in the new western dormitories, and a reluctance to replace KAIST’s ridiculously antiquated web services. These points may seem rather unimportant separately, but when a student suffers grievance after grievance the effects of each seemingly insignificant problem gather into a large coalescing ball of disillusionment and distrust.
On the financial side of the issue lies the fact that students are no longer allowed to pursue their passions outside of academics as much as in the past. The risk of possible financial ruin (in the minds of undergrads, even a million won is a hard figure to swallow) forces them to curtail their interests in favor of more problem sets and quiz preparation. Students who could have become the backbone of many student organizations, from sports to the arts, are instead left immobile in front of their desks, desperately fighting a battle to retain their scholarships. In a much more lenient time, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that the club culture at KAIST would have been more vibrant.
Why is club culture important to the issue of school pride? Anyone active in a club will agree, but being an integral part of a group of like-minded students while pursuing a goal - including academics, sports, the arts, or any goal for that matter - is a wholly fulfilling experience. This fulfillment will later develop into self-esteem, and later, pride. The proposition that club dynamics are a major contributor to school pride is, without a doubt, here to stay.
At this point, I cannot propose a clear-cut solution. That would require more in-depth study than this single opinion can cover. However, in general terms, a plan to bring back KAIST-manship might look a little like this: The school should openly show that it values the students by granting them a little more attention and freedom. Shiny buildings can only go so far in attempting to show that you care. Maybe then, the students just might start to love their school back.
Hyunjin Park, Editor-in-Chief