Archived Voice Articles

Korean Students Expand the Fishbowl

By Julie Ooms

Until recently, prospective Dordt students who visited Dordt’s website or participated in Campus Visit Days would see a picture of a fishbowl overlooking the ocean on the webpage or on bulletin board posters. The caption beneath the picture read, “Step into a Larger World,” implying that at Dordt College, students could acquire the skills and develop the Reformed perspective they needed to live successful Christ-like lives wherever they ended up after graduation. Today’s website and campus visit posters are devoid of fishbowls, but Dordt’s mission for its students is the same, if reworded: “Find Your Place in God’s World.” Dordt College is a place where students are trained in the areas God has called them to serve, and they go out into his world to act as lighted signs pointing toward Christ.

Part of finding one’s place in God’s world involves exploring the community of Christians that exists beyond the borders of Dordt College. Through a recently formed relationship between Dordt and two Korean universities, students and others at Dordt are getting the opportunity to form bonds of their own and explore the Christian perspectives of people from Korea.

Dordt welcomed five new Korean students this year, four freshmen and a junior. Hani Yang is a communication major; Kevin Kim’s chosen field is business administration, and Sae Mee Lee looks forward to teaching elementary school. Angela Jeong is yet undeclared, as many freshmen are when they first come to college. Angela’s older sister, Grace, a junior, transferred from a Korean university when her organ teacher left the school. Grace is pursuing a major in church music, recently performed in her junior recital, and is considering going on to graduate school. Harah Sun, the sixth of Dordt’s Korean students, came to Dordt two years ago as a freshman and is studying political studies and Spanish.

Dordt looks forward to enrolling more Korean students in future years. “We’ll probably have six to eight students come to Dordt from Korea next year,” says Quentin Van Essen, Dordt’s Director of Admissions. “I think it’s very possible for Dordt to have up to thirty Korean students in the next two years.” And how is this possible? The answer is twofold, according to Van Essen. One reason is the relationship that Dordt has with the Korean American community in southern California. Dr. Jay Shim, an associate professor of theology at Dordt and a Korean American, has been very influential in cultivating that relationship. He has contact with many Presbyterian and Christian Reformed Korean pastors in that area.

The second reason is another relationship, one Dordt has been cultivating with two Presbyterian universities in Korea for the past ten years. One university, Chong-shin, is in South Korea’s capital city, Seoul; the other, Kosin, is in the southern city of Busan. In fact, the current president of Kosin, Dr. Sung Soo Kim, spent time at Dordt College in the early 1990s to work with Dordt faculty in studying how a Christian worldview makes a difference in Christian education. As the relationship between Dordt and these “sister universities” continues to develop, Shim says, he hopes Dordt and these two schools will be able to exchange professors and students, to the benefit of people at all three institutions, who will be able to learn from each other.

“Church growth in South Korea happened very fast,” says Shim. The gospel that Presbyterian missionaries brought to the South Koreans after the Korean War took root in many hearts and spread rapidly throughout the country. “People there are very devout worshipers,” says Shim. Since the Korean War never officially ended—there was no peace treaty, the people live with tension. “Christian faith gives meaning and hope to people’s lives,” says Shim. North Americans may be able to learn something from their devotion.

However, Shim goes on to say, “Christianity has had little impact on the culture in South Korea. Christian life there is very dualistic. People go to church on Sundays, and pray very regularly, and read Scripture, but there is no sense of a Christian worldview for all areas of life.” Koreans can learn more about the role of the Christian faith in culture, Shim believes. “Both Korean institutions want Dordt to help their faculty develop a Christian worldview that fits their culture and so be able to teach courses from such perspective,” says Shim. The developing relationship between Dordt and these two universities makes this goal very possible, very soon, he believes.

But there’s another side to the coin. Remember the fishbowl? Dordt students as well as Korean students need to step outside the world they’re comfortable with and experience how others live, both because of their Christian walk and, more generally, because of their different cultural backgrounds. “Dordt is limited,” says Shim, “geographically, culturally, and ethnically. Having these Korean students come to Dordt is a way to let both groups experience differences.”

The Korean students have certainly had those cross-cultural experiences, but not all of them have been about faith issues. Angela and Grace Jeong, for instance, have a funny story about food in America and Korea. “In Korea,” says Angela, “we would have a bowl of rice or soup, and then a lot of other dishes. And Koreans are smaller people. Americans seem to have one dish only, and they are tall and large! I wondered, how do they get that way?” When asked if she liked the campus, Angela said “Very much;” Grace interjected, “But what about the smell?” referring to the large hog farms that are located near enough campus to waft their smell throughout the area.

These students have learned a lot about the Reformed worldview and the way other Dordt students practice their faith. “At home, we used to have quick morning services at 6 a.m. before we started our days,” says Yang. “Here at Dordt I go to Christ Community Church every Sunday and G.I.F.T. (student-led contemporary worship) and Thursday chapels.” The Jeong sisters’ father was an army chaplain for twenty-five years, and the family talked about faith issues often at home. The biggest difference they find with the Reformed worldview they’ve learned about at Dordt is its emphasis on creation, they say. In Korea redemption is not often linked to God’s whole creation, but only to the salvation of God’s people. Angela, however, says she appreciates what she’s been learning in her theology class. “I have developed my faith in theology (class),” she says. “It made me study more deeply about what ‘Christian’ means.” Professors hope that all Dordt students are able to say the same thing—possibly spurred on by interaction with the Korean students.

“I want my students to be agitated,” says Shim. “Dordt students need to be challenged, with a direction toward developing a Christian worldview.” Dordt’s website describes the school in a similar way, calling it a place where students “stretch their minds in exciting new ways.” The rich Christian heritage and intellectual community at Dordt gives students a place to stand, to sprout, and to grow into Christians capable of affecting our world for Christ. “We can shape others,” says Shim, “and be challenged by them. When we do this, we will all be able to move throughout the world and live as light and salt.”