Speaking at Pusan National University.
Speaking at Pusan National University.

July 21, 2015

My wife and I are sitting in Incheon Airport waiting for our flight to Seattle. This is a huge airport, with multiple levels, and includes shopping, a cultural center, restaurants, nursing rooms, and showers. So this is quite the place! I am also reflecting on my stay here in Korea and the experiences the sport management students had, and will continue to have, for the next two weeks.

One of the key learning experiences for students is navigating a new city on their own. This is an obvious and essential skill for anyone traveling internationally. The way to go is usually the subway. The subway system in Korea, particularly in Seoul, is world class. It is dependable, inexpensive, and logical — once a person figures out the logic. The challenge is that all signs are marked in Korean characters. Even though there is an English spelling associated with the characters, these are also in Korean. I am unable to adequately describe the initial difficulty in figuring out the system. Once the subway system has been used a couple of times, faculty Yong Chae Rhee and Chris Lebens give an assignment to students to figure out their way back to the dormitories from an excursion somewhere in the city. As if by magic, they all show up at the designated time.

Three days ago we went to the demilitarized zone – or DMZ – that separates North Korea from South Korea. From the demarcation line, North Korea owns two kilometers (1.25 miles) north that makes up half of the DMZ. South Korea owns two kilometers south for the other half of the DMZ. The area is controlled by the United Nations.

The visit to the DMZ was interesting, sobering, and tense. It is clear that the war between the two countries continues. The South Korean soldiers at the DMZ are on constant alert. The guards at the demarcation line that separates North Korea from South Korea remain in a posture ready to fight. All soldiers at the DMZ have a black belt in taekwondo and are college educated.

The plaques that mark various sites along the route tell a story of a long struggle, a tremendous fight, and unimaginable suffering. Koreans also give thanks for sacrifices that other countries endured, such as the U.S. with its military. Though actual fighting is rare between the two countries, the barbed wire fences and guard towers that line the route to and from the DMZ are constant reminders that the countries remain at war.
The last place we stayed was Yonsei University. This is a private, elite university with a top-flight medical school and hospital. The Yonsei Cancer Center holds 2,000 patient beds. The campus is beautiful with many lush green spaces and interesting architecture. Yonsei University is one of the hospitals that has dealt with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. Korea has experienced a decline in tourism this summer as many have been concerned about the MERS outbreak in this country that occurred a few weeks back. MERS is clearly contained and nearly nonexistent now. Chris mentioned that the country is so confident in its containment of this outbreak that they have offered free medical care and $100,000 for anyone contracting MERS, all as an enticement to gain tourists back.

As Yong Chae and Chris were planning and scheduling activities, many of them were canceled given the MERS outbreak. Thus, a number of changes were made to the schedule of excursions and experiences that the students received. The good news is that given the containment of MERS, some of the events that were canceled have become available again. Yong Chae and Chris are working to reschedule these activities. I think a takeaway for me is that summer-abroad programs require a good deal of flexibility and creativity.

The presentation at Pusan National University went quite well. There were about 40 students and faculty in attendance, in addition to our sport management students. Yong Chae acted as the interpreter during questions and answers at the end of the presentation. There was good attention and interaction. It was quite invigorating for me. The students were science education graduate students. We’ll see what comes of this. I am hopeful for continued collaboration with PNU.

Our experiences in Korea were uniformly positive. My wife and I found the Korean people to be respectful, cordial, and most willing to try and communicate with us, despite our lack of Korean language (except hello and thank you). I learned more about Korea and its history. And despite years of oppression by Asian neighbors, I found Korean people to be upbeat, positive, confident, and with a can-do attitude. Their success in the global economy is a poignant example of what can occur when people see the best in even the worst of circumstances.

Tae Ho Kim is a new faculty member in our sport management program. His in-laws took WSU faculty and their families out to dinner last night. It was a gracious and generous gesture, and quite a meal! Tae Ho’s mother-in-law is an epidemiologist at Yonsei University’s College of Nursing. She will retire next year. However, she will work another two years for a Korean government agency in Bangladesh helping to establish nursing schools in the country, work that she has been doing as a faculty member. Her comment to me is that, at one time, Korea needed and received assistance from other countries. But now Korea is giving back by helping other countries develop in positive ways, such as in Bangladesh. I think this best sums up my impression of Korea and communicates the enduring spirit of the country and its people. I hope everyone in the college gets an opportunity to visit Korea. I think you will be as impressed as I.

Here are some other photos: