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Feature: A Freshman's Tragedy
Feature: A Freshman's Tragedy
  • Min Kyu Choi
  • Approved 2011.02.23 00:03
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Foreword: January 2011 was a month of mourning for KAIST. Min Hong Cho, of the class of 2014 took his own life, ending what could have been a bright and illustrious career. The KAIST Herald, in response to this tragic incident, decided to create a compilation about the perceived causes, effects, and proposed countermeasures. All of the information in this section has been built on news reports, interviews, and factual evidence.

Compiled by:

Min Kyu Choi | The KAIST Herald Chief Reporter

DongJae Lee, Dong-Kyeong Lee | The KAIST Herald Staff Reporters

Ji Ha Kim, Sang Eun Jee, Yoo Hee Kang | The KAIST Herald Junior Staff Reporters

Paulo Kemper | The KAIST Herald Contributing Writer

Profile | Who was Min Hong Cho?

Min Hong Cho was originally from Busan, and he had an unusual childhood. His interest for science, more specifically robots, flourished while still in his second year of elementary school. He liked to play with construction toys, such as LEGOs, and showed a fair degree of skill in building his own models without any need to consult assembly manuals. With support from his parents he started to develop his skills and to participate in several robotics competitions.

In his fourth year of elementary school, he won a first place award without the aid of his teachers. He became famous after taking first place and receiving the Minister of Science and Technology Award at the 2007 Korean International Robotics Olympiad followed in the next year by a third place finish at the 2008 International Robotics Olympiad. His complete record amasses over 60 notable achievements in robotics competitions.

In academic life, he also chose to take a unique path. Although he started his high school studies without any clear focus on the sciences, his passion for robotics weighed heavier later on and he decided to transfer to Busan’s Daejin Telecommunications High School. His admission to KAIST was also another uncommon event. He was the first student from a technical high school to be accepted to KAIST.

His social life, on the other hand, was rather normal. Always very talkative and outgoing, he was chosen as the class representative, and had several friends, and also participated in the KAIST Mini-Baja team Jilju. Those around him perceived him as someone always positive and happy. He enjoyed downhill mountain biking and motorcycle racing.

At first glance, he had a bright future both academically and socially. However, the same factors that made his existence at KAIST so special started to take their toll on him. While most students who come to KAIST have a strong background in mathematics and the sciences, students from technical high schools tend to lack some of the basic knowledge necessary to keep up with the college curriculum. The heavy work load given to undergraduate students became unbearable during the course of his freshman year. This burden became heavier by the fact that the lectures, assignments, and tests were all conducted in English. One of his biggest frustrations was being unable to communicate well in English and understand the materials used in his courses.

There are probably several factors which led him to take the dramatic decision of ending his life. Despite having an outstanding history of receiving prestigious accolades in robotics competitions in his early years, his performance in college may have been far below his own expectations. It was also alleged that he was having a rough time in his relationship with his girlfriend, having broken up sometime just before the school released the amount of tuition due for the coming 2011 spring semester.

Whether these facts triggered his death or not, will remain unanswered. Still, it is believed that a combination of these causes became his main motive in his final fateful decision. On the night of January 11, after ingesting a lethal dose of sleeping pills, his life came to an end.

His premature passing caused a number of reactions. Questions were raised and changes were made to the current educational system, the tuition policies, and the burden shouldered by the students at KAIST. It is a sobering thought, however, that the improvement of these policies became an issue only after the loss of a bright and talented student.

Effects and Media Coverage

Many newspapers and news broadcasts also dealt with this case. They pointed towards some possible causes such as academic probation or too much stress from over-studying.

YTN listed the possible causes of his death that the student could not adjust well to the English speaking class and was under tremendous stress that comes from studying and academic probation. It also stated that KAIST puts huge amount of pressure on these students as all the classes are taught in English and adopts a system in which students are required to pay for tuition fee if their grades decline. YTN listed past cases of suicide in KAIST and argued that too much emphasis on grade point averages(GPA), competition between the students, and heavy load have been mounting increasing pressure on the students.

The Joongang Ilbo looked at the incident from a different angle. It said that if the student had asked for help, this tragedy would never have happened and that universities should try harder to prevent the deaths of many bright students. They stated that the professors and other experts must cooperate beforehand in order to provide help to students who are finding it difficult to adjust to school.

As an example, it talked about Seoul National University’s 24 hour hot-line counseling system. Also it pointed out that KAIST’s impellent selection policy has also caused this tragedy and that KAIST must reexamine its admissions officer system.

The Chosun Ilbo interviewed other students from KAIST. These students argued that the work load is too high in general, not only for students from general high schools, but for students from prestigious specialized high schools as well. They assumed it must have been harder for a student who came from a technical high school where the coursework tends to have a much different focus than the standard science high schools.

A member of the KAIST faculty, who is active on Twitter mentioned this case on several occasions. He argued that the school’s policy of demanding tuition fees according to their GPA as being an obstacle in producing creative students. He also argued that we must change the policy in order to bring about functional creative university education and free the students from assessments. He argued that KAIST’s mission is to grow as an institution that teaches essential education in science and creative thinking.

This case caused widespread disputes among KAIST students as well. Many students at KAIST expressed their sentiments through comments on the school’s unofficial student forum, ARA. Students wrote about their deep regret at hearing such news.

One of the students said that although the new admissions officer system had good intentions, the school may not have been prepared for such a new system and may have treated these new students with school policies already in place that should not have applied to them. In addition, KAIST’s grade-dependent tuition fee system may have been greatly unfavorable to these students who are assumed to traditionally start off with disadvantageous educational backgrounds.

Students argued that it would have been fairer for all students entering through the admissions officer system if the school had slowly guided these students into studying their specific passions rather than integrating them directly into the curriculum.

Future Measures: Student Council

After the death of Min Hong Cho, actions were taken by KAIST’s Student Council, Urinuri, to discuss the possible causes that might have led to the devastating consequence. Following Cho’s funeral held on the 10th, the Central Management Committee organized a temporary convocation in the afternoon. On the 13th, a public hearing was held to gather the opinions of KAIST students regarding the matter. On the following day, the outcome of the public hearing was organized, processed, and presented at a Countermeasure Conference held by the school to prevent further unfortunate incidents.

Looking into the details of the public hearing held by Urinuri on January 13, around 40 students and four school officials attended the meeting. Urinuri plans on initiating a survey based on the supposed causes and problems offered by the students, as well as coming up with alternatives for the incoming Class of 2011 and finding solutions to the problems that were brought to attention. Such problems will be discussed further and as an outcome, Urinuri will suggest a new educational model that will help KAIST improve.

The Suggested Problems

- Students should not simply adapt to the system created by the school. Instead, the school should review the system in detail to see whether or not it is working well.
- The advertisement for KAIST’s mentoring, tutoring, counseling center, and counseling clubs are not active enough. Students hardly know about these programs.
- Generally, different tuition rates based on grades is leaving an impression of failure to students. A newly created idea of a “student’s ability = average GPA” has been formed.
- Sharing meager resources and important information of any kind is hardly found among students on campus. Students are saying that they have no free time and that the current tuition fee is already too much for students to handle. Generally, the grade-on-a-curve system has failed to motivate students to help each other.
- The school has to take care of its students. Advisors, lab professors, and the counseling center should spend more time taking care of the students.
- Seniors should take care of juniors more responsibly.
- The grade-on-a-curve system applied to students from various backgrounds ranging from technical high schools to science high schools.
- There is no second chance for students who have already failed.
- Enjoying classes to the fullest has a limit. Students may enjoy classes, but find it difficult to enjoy the grading system.
- In the past, many gifted students who find it difficult to receive a high GPA at KAIST have continued to study and have succeeded, but under the current tuition payment system based on grades, this kind of a positive outcome is impossible.

▲ A combination of grades and tuitions are attributed as the main underlying causes of this tragedy

Future Plans and Suggested Solutions (Public Hearing)

From the public hearing held on January 14, the following solutions have been suggested to prevent an incident like this from happening again.

- Reapply the system that allows students to drop classes after the mid-term exam.
- Improve the course retaking policy (the course number limit, grade limit, retake fee)
- Create a grade before freshman year (grade 0) to allow Korean students to take English courses and foreign students to take Korean courses.
- Create “KAISTpedia,” a Wikipedia-like source where all KAIST information be found.
- Engender an increase in interest in underclassmen from the upperclassmen, and an increase in interest in students from the professors.
- Conduct a survey on the student body to perceive the problems of KAIST more clearly.
- Widen the range of GPA-oriented tuition fee system from the current 0.01 units of GPA to loosen the academic competitiveness.
- Discourage the guilt and awareness that one is not above a certain level (the 3.0 GPA cutline for paying the tuition fee).
- Allow students to choose whether they want to take a course in English or in Korean.
- Offer Korean communication skills to foreign students by creating a language school, like the one established by Seoul National University.
- Increase places where students can interact with each other (eg. student lounge).
- Investigate what kind of prodigies that KAIST wants, picks and produces.
- Change the cultural perspective on technical high schools.
- Rather than change their perspective on receiving a low GPA as failure, offer the students a chance to do so themselves.

Urinuri, the student body president of KAIST, highlighted that out of the above suggestions, improving the tuition fee system and loosening the course-retaking policy are most dire. Specifically, they think that the tuition fee should increase in a staircase-like fashion rather than a linear one, as the GPA gets lower. Although offering scholarships to all students regardless of GPA level would be ideal, they think that this is almost impossible. However, they are trying to exclude the grades received during freshman year from the tuition fee policy. To realize these reforms within a year, Urinuri plans to create a tuition fee policy-making council within the next month. The university, unlike the student body president, feels that establishing a counseling center is the most important action to take, according to Urinuri.

Future Measures: Administration

The KAIST Herald talked to Professor Seung-seup Lee, the Dean of Student Affairs at KAIST. Professor Lee emphasized that the school is working hard to improve the counseling system.

Mainly, he mentioned a new facility that will be built on the top floor of the Creative Learning Building. The new counseling facility will replace the old one currently located at Tae-Wool Kwan. It will be easily noticed and accessed by the students. The facility is slated for completion by this semester. The space currently occupied by the counseling facility in Tae-Wook Kwan will be given to the students.

Professor Lee also mentioned that the counseling staff will be increased as well. In 2010, the counselors handled 2,000 cases – a number too much for the current staff. Because of that, the staff couldn’t offer counseling outside their offices, not able to reach out to those in need of help but wouldn’t come to the counseling office. This year, the staff number will be increased to six, meaning the counseling service will be improved in quality. Due to the increase, at least one staff will be able to stay at the office until late at night, helping students who can’t make it during the daytime.

The counseling service will also help with coaching and addiction. Coaching is done prior to counseling, where the staff will talk to students about their lives and future plans. Addiction treatment is done when counseling isn’t effective anymore. It will help with students such as those who are addicted to games.

Besides the expansion of the counseling service, the school will also integrate the Development Center to the counseling program. It will help students at KAIST develop their personalities, sociality, and cooperation. Until now, students focused too much on their studies are traditionally believed to lack the skills mentioned above. The school will open seminars and classes on increasing these skills. It will also provide counseling services if necessary.

Happy College Life

Happy College Life, a course which was designed rigorously since December of last year by many of members of KAIST, has gained full momentum since the start of this semester. This mandatory course focuses heavily on helping freshman students adapting smoothly to life at KAIST. The course is composed of various weekly activities such as field trips, sports events, and special lectures given by celebrities.

▲ Students attending a class of Happy College Life

Each and every class has students from diverse backgrounds, whether it is science high schools, general high schools, foreign language high schools, or technical high schools. This was done to promote students to make connections with other students from different backgrounds more easily. Students from general and technical high schools are expected to benefit mostly from this arrangement as most of the students admitted to KAIST come from science high schools who already have strong network connections with each other even before entering school.

Notably, young professors were usually chosen to lead the course with the assumption that they would connect better with the freshman students. Some of these professors attended KAIST for their undergraduate studies. Furthermore, teaching assistants are assigned to each class to bridge the gap between the professor and his or her students, if any.

An important component of Happy College Life is the addition of Resident Advisors, who are upperclassmen who reside closely with freshman students. These advisors intimately assist and oversee a student’s academics as well as his or her personal life and offer any help when needed. They are promoted to uphold a sibling-like figure so that they can be easily approached by freshmen.

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