2000 ETA Program
When I applied to the ETA Program as a senior in college, I had two largely personal goals: to get back to East Asia (I had spent a year living in Kyoto, Japan as a junior) and to live in a country I had not traveled to before. Regarding the latter goal, I was admittedly not in the most pragmatic mindset. While other seniors were gearing up for their first ‘real jobs’ out of school, I was driven primarily by an intense curiosity to see if I would ‘sink or swim’ in a country whose culture and language were a blank slate to me. As such, I was more interested in testing my limits personally at that time than in building my professional or academic credentials. But a funny thing happened along the path of learning to survive as a young and clueless miguk saram in Korea: I developed a passion for the country so deep that it literally took the reins of charting my career path moving forward. I did not know exactly the type of work I was best suited to at that time—academia? government? business?—but I knew that I would feel a sense of fulfillment as long as my work enabled me to deepen my knowledge of this fascinating country. What was it, precisely, about my experiences as an ETA, and later as the program’s first ETA coordinator, that gave me the “Korea bug?” Was it the opportunity to bond with other ETAs while we learned the Korean phrase for “please do not boil my underwear” during our summer language training sessions in the hills of Chuncheon? Was it the smiling faces of my students when some English phrase I was struggling to impart on them finally ‘clicked’? Was it the humiliating-yet-hilarious opportunity to sing an off-key version of “How Deep is Your Love”—complete with hand gestures and backup singers—to an auditorium of 700 students and their families at the annual “Mon-yo-go” variety show? (It is a tribute to the depth of my affection for my students that they talked me into that one.) Or was it my homestay mother in Mokpo, who proudly proclaimed to anyone who entered our home that I was her “daughter”—not her homestay daughter, her real daughter—prompting intense levels of curiosity among Mokpo’s social circles? In truth, the Korea bug bit me at several moments over the course of my time as an ETA. I was left with an overall impression of a country that faces great challenges (these were the post-IMF, early ‘Sunshine Policy’ days) with immense soul. Having the opportunity to learn more about Korean history and politics while I lived there, I was deeply inspired by the ability of this people, this culture, this economy, to thrive in the midst of great uncertainties in the security realm. It became clear to me that at the core of Korea’s ability to stake its bold claim in this world is the grit and determination of its people. And so a combination of comical/personal and more serious/universal realizations about Korea instilled in me a passion for this peninsula—its people, its culture, and its security challenges. Since leaving Korea, I received a master’s degree in East Asian and International Security Studies, worked alumni stories | 49 for the U.S. government in Washington, DC—culminating in a one-year stint as the Director for Japan, Korea and Oceanic Affairs at the White House National Security Council—and, at present, am pursuing a PhD in Political Science with a focus on sovereignty issues in East Asia. Each of these phases of my career has involved work with Koreans on Korea-related issues. As such, I may have left Korea in 2002 but Korea has not left me. I credit the ETA Program with providing this focus—I entered the program with a fuzzy interest in adventure and left with a passion that continues to drive my life’s work.
Excerpt from 20 Years of Teaching & Learning. Seoul: Korea-American Educational Commission, 2012, pp. 47-49