Archived Voice Articles

Korean exchange grows

By Julie Ooms

Connections between Dordt and two universities in South Korea have grown in the past two years, and so has the number of Korean students attending Dordt College. And this year, two recent Dordt graduates traveled across the Pacific to Kosin University in South Korea—to teach. Adam Van Gelder and Justin Van Zee, both of whom graduated from Dordt in May of 2007, are spending a year living and working in Korea as English professors. Their decision, the two young men agree, has been as exciting as it was unexpected.

Theology Professor Jay Shim recruited Adam Van Gelder and Justin Van Zee to teach English at a Korean Reformed University, and he visited them there this fall when he was in the country.

Theology Professor Jay Shim recruited Adam Van Gelder and Justin Van Zee to teach English at a Korean Reformed University, and he visited them there this fall when he was in the country.

“Teaching at Kosin University is probably the best job I never intended to get,” says Van Zee, squeezing in responses to interview questions via e-mail as he and Van Gelder kept up with their busy schedules. Both Van Zee and Van Gelder were recruited by Dr. Jay Shim, a Korean theology professor at Dordt College who has worked, along with President Carl Zylstra, to strengthen the bond between Dordt and the universities in Korea. Right now, according to Shim, Dordt’s closest tie in Korea is to the president of Kosin, Dr. Sung Soo Kim. Kim spent time at Dordt College several years ago and saw his son graduate from here. Kim will also be the January convocation speaker at Dordt.

“President Kim asked me if I could recommend anyone to come to Kosin and teach English,” Shim says. He thought immediately of Van Gelder and Van Zee, both of whom, as theology majors, were his students. “They’re wonderful students, and good, strong, clear thinkers,” Shim says.

“Why did I come to Korea?” Van Gelder asks himself in his e-mail. “Basically, it was the middle of July, I was working part-time as a waiter and part-time as a gas station attendant, and I still had no idea of what I was going to do the coming year. Then I received an e-mail from Professor Shim.”

Van Zee has a similar story. After returning from the Middle East Studies Program, where he had spent his last semester of college, Van Zee received his diploma and then, he says, “I put my degree in theology to good use at my old summer job of roofing houses while I lived with my parents and tried to sort out the next step.” It only took a week to decide to teach English at the Reformed university, says Van Zee.

When asked whether they felt “called” to South Korea, both Van Gelder and Van Zee qualified their answers. “I wouldn’t say I felt called to come here,” Van Zee says, “but that it was a door that had been opened for me, an opportunity to travel, to live with a good friend, to experience another culture, to explore some questions that I had after my study abroad in the Middle East.”

Van Gelder, too, says, “I don’t know if ‘called’ is the correct word to use. I believe that I am called to live a certain way as a Christian. I look for opportunities to use my passions and gifts and then try to be used in the work that God is already doing.” Both feel that they are being used in the work God is doing in South Korea.

They’ve been teaching for several months now, helping students at Kosin improve their English skills. At the same time they are learning more about Korea. Both Van Gelder and Van Zee teach full-time at the university, and they teach an hour-long children’s English class five days a week. According to Shim, Van Zee is also working on Kosin’s English website, and both teach English Sunday school at a church on Sundays. They live on an island called Yeongdo just off the coast; Busan, the city where Kosin is located, is on the southernmost tip of South Korea.

“Don’t think tropical paradise,” Van Zee says. The island is connected to Busan by a few major bridges but feels less modern than Busan. “The streets are small and winding without sidewalks, and you are always going up or downhill.”

Justin Van Zee and Adam Van Gelder have been learning many new things about Korean culture, including Korean cuisine.

Justin Van Zee and Adam Van Gelder have been learning many new things about Korean culture, including Korean cuisine.

When they aren’t teaching, planning for classes, grading assignments, or attending meetings, they explore Korean culture—mostly through their interactions with their students.

“We spend a lot of time with students outside of class because we’re so close in age,” Van Zee says. Many of them are older because Korea has a mandatory two years of military service for men. They’ve found a way to feel like professors in the classroom, though. “When we first got here,” Van Zee says, “we decided that we should grow beards so we’d look older. It works.” Van Zee and Van Gelder eat lunch with their students and often spend evenings with them.

“The students have been incredibly warm and friendly,” Van Zee relates. “Without a doubt, they are the best part of my job.”

In the time they’ve spent with their students, Van Gelder and Van Zee have not only built friendships but also encountered challenges. One is a gap in the ability to communicate. Neither of them speaks Korean, and because Korean schools tend to emphasize memorization over creative thinking, many of their students have memorized many English words but have never used them in conversation with an English-speaker.

“I’ve definitely learned to speak slowly!” Van Gelder says. “Since I can’t speak Korean, I feel pretty limited in what I can communicate sometimes. Hopefully God is using me in ways that I don’t quite know about!”

Another challenge is the gap between Korean and American culture. Both young men have come to realize how individualistic American culture is in light of the communal values of the Koreans with whom they interact. Van Gelder and Van Zee observe that while Americans are used to thinking primarily about their own opinions and schedules, and being independent, Koreans tend to think of the group first rather than the individual.

“The cultural differences remind me that there’s another way of thinking and seeing the world,” Van Zee says, relating what he’s learning now to his experience in the Middle East. “My culture has conditioned my understanding of the world and my habits, and rather than being frustrated by another culture’s way of doing things, I try to use it as a reminder of my own finitude. My perspective is not the only one worth considering.” The lesson both have learned in Busan is one of Christian humility.

The biggest challenge for those teaching in Korea is to teach students how to think critically, says Shim. Van Zee adds, “The Korean educational system is based on memorization and repetition, not discussion and imagination.” They believe that young people—especially Christian young people—need to be shown how to criticize and be creative with knowledge and thinking.

“Before Adam and Justin left, I told them, ‘Don’t just teach English—try to teach them how to think. Agitate their minds,’” Shim says. Shim also spoke of the dualistic nature of Christianity in his country, where many people have little sense of a Christian worldview that affects all of life, even life outside of church. “Adam and Justin need to help Korean Christians with the idea of ‘every square inch,’” he says. “Every part of a person’s life belongs to God.”

Van Gelder and Van Zee have tried to follow Shim’s advice. “I hope God is using my work here to encourage students, to challenge them in their thinking,” says Van Zee. And as they strive to help their students become critical, Reformed thinkers as well as English speakers, Van Zee and Van Gelder have learned something about “every square inch” as well.

“While apart from what’s familiar in the U.S.,” Van Zee says to conclude his e-mail, “we know that the family of God is bigger than race or distance.”