From October 30 to November 2, Head of School Peter O’Neill traveled to Korea for the first time. The purpose of his trip was to visit with Garrison Forest’s current parents and alumnae who live in Seoul and to meet prospective students and their families. (Earlier in the week, he was in China for similar Garrison Forest business. His first trip to China in January 2010 was shared through a blog.)
Young women from Korea have been attending Garrison Forest School since the early 1980s when Seoul native Sooyoun Shim ’83 enrolled at GFS. The many students from Korea who have followed in her footsteps have added immeasurably to the School’s vibrant global community and to the richness of cultures and traditions celebrated at GFS. Mr. O’Neill’s travels to Korea and China underscore the absolute necessity of understanding and respecting the cultural history, traditions, and nuances of another country.
Today, a global perspective is vital for every student at Garrison Forest. They have the advantage of learning and living with girls from around the world. Their “global competition” is their lab partner, teammate, hall mate, and most important, friend. From these deep relationships and understanding grow a sense of global collaboration between all GFS students.
Enjoy Mr. O’Neill’s thoughts and reflections on his trip:
Arriving in Korea
“I arrived in South Korea on Sunday evening, October 30, flying into Seoul on Korean Airlines. The soft pastels of the airline’s interior were my first indication of the quiet serenity, warmth, and sophisticated elegance awaiting me on the flight and during my stay in Seoul. The airline’s service and accommodations were impeccable on what is by far the most comfortable and pleasant long-distance flight I have ever had.
My flight actually arrived in nearby Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s primary international airport. Upon arriving, I thought of General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant strategic invasion on September 19, 1950 during the Korean War. When I saw Incheon’s coastline, I realized what a courageous decision he had made to mount an amphibious assault on a craggy coastline with dangerously quick currents in the channel. Clearly it must have been a difficult landing, but it was one that changed the course of the war.
As I left the airport, I was also reminded that I was close to the demilitarization line between South and North Korea. Its quiet presence underscores that this remains a divided country.
Approaching Seoul by car, I was struck by its skyline. The highways and buildings are pristine, and the sophistication so evident on my flight carries over into the architecture. The city is enveloped by mountains which add to its beauty.
I had very little time during my trip for sight-seeing. My two full days in Seoul (October 31 and November 1) were spent meeting parents, visiting with our first student from Korea, Sooyoun Shim ‘83, interviewing a delightful candidate for admission, and other pleasant visits. I regret that I was unable to explore much of the city, as I was fascinated by what I saw from my hotel window.
Seoul has some of the highest priced real estate per square foot of any city in the world, yet from my window, I saw three golf driving ranges—multi-tiered structures covered in green nets—punctuating the cityscape. Golf is nearly a religion in South Korea. Everyone plays. I was told that there are 300 golf clubs, often with entry fees as high as $1 million. Also dotting the skyline are numerous Christian churches. Up to 300,000 people attend church every Sunday in Seoul.
Seoul Parents’ Reception
Monday, October 31—Halloween back home—was filled with delightful meetings. The same grace, graciousness, and sense of protocol so evident during my visit were equally as prominent during the reception. When guests first arrived at the reception held at the Ritz Carlton, they sat quietly at tables. This was my first trip to Korea and our first meal together—new for everyone.
But once formal introductions were made and parents “matched” their daughter’s friends with the parents in attendance, conversations became animated as they shared their daughters’ GFS experiences with each other.
During these visits and throughout my time in Seoul, I learned a great deal about the Korean educational system and philosophy from the GFS parents of our Korean students. College admission and academics were the main topics of the questions asked during the reception.
Joining us was Sun Joo Lee, Class of 2011. Sun came to GFS as an 8th Grade boarder and participated fully in the life of the school. She was an exceptional student of the humanities and sciences. Last spring, she won the prestigious Donald Elliott Award in the Humanities and did research at Johns Hopkins through Garrison Forest’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program. She led an active Service League club to visit sick children in a local hospital and played in an audition-only, regional youth orchestra. Parents enjoyed hearing her perspective, and I was delighted to see her again. Sun will be attending Washington University in January after taking university courses in Seoul. Parents were excited to speak with her about the college process as well.
With Sun’s help and through a translator, I learned more about the absolutely essential role education plays in the Korean family and culture. Our students from Korea bring to their GFS experience an incredible level of discipline and commitment to learning. Their academic work ethic and ambitions (their parents’ and their own) are impressive.
College placement is without question the reason families send their daughters to Garrison Forest and to other leading boarding schools in the United States. In both South Korea and China, the universities are very carefully ranked and rankings are absolute. When Asian parents ask college counselors at U.S. schools about rankings and certain colleges, it is out of tradition. In Korea, if a student scores well enough to attend the country’s #1 ranked school that is where she attends. The American concept of a “safety” school or of the “right fit” at a non-Ivy League school does not have the same context within the Korean system of higher education.
Parents further explained the Korean tradition of a hogwan, or private, for-profit tutoring school, where students attend after a full day of school and on weekends for additional study. In Korea, there is a willingness to have students gain preparation all the time, an approach to academics which often carries over with our Korean students at Garrison Forest.
Several parents expressed their gratitude for the personal attention and help that our teachers provide to their daughters. It was wonderful to hear that what has always been the ‘Garrison way” in the classroom translates so easily into another educational tradition.
Other Seoul Meetings
The next morning, I met with two educational consultants before having lunch with alumna Sooyoun Shim. She is terrific and has a wonderful attitude about education for Korean students. She has raised two daughters who attended the international school in Seoul. Soo herself is a graduate of Rhode Island School for Design (RISD) and spoke glowingly about the art program and faculty at GFS. One of her daughters is at RISD and her younger daughter plans on continuing the family tradition.
Thoughts on Returning Home
My flight home on Korean Airlines was just as comfortable as my flight to Seoul and offered me a chance to reflect on my trip. I returned jet-lagged—I have a much better understanding of what our international boarders go through coming to and from GFS—but my few days in South Korea only whetted my appetite to return.
The following days in back in Baltimore were a bit foggy as my body adjusts to flying over several time zones, but I have been energized by the people I met and places I visited in Korea and on my equally wonderful return visit to China. The trip was illuminating in so many ways, and the connections made with our parents and alumnae—and the connections they made with each other—will bode well for all Garrison Forest students.
NOTE: Included in the photos depicting Mr. O'Neill's trip to Korea are photos of a recent installation in Shanghai by internationally renowned scultptor Wu Ching-ju, the guest speaker at GFS's dedication of its Confucius Classroom in January 2011. During his trip, Mr. O'Neill visited her stunning Pro Terra et Natura. We include the photos here because of her recent visit to GFS and the connection she made with our students.