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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jeju Sowing Seeds of International Education

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- As tree leaves change color and tangerine growers harvest their golden crops, Jeju Island is gearing up to market what may be its most ambitious project yet with a recruitment road show for prospective students for its pioneering global education city.

The Jeju Global Education City is a government-funded, purpose-built city focused totally on education. With the exception of classes on Korean language and history taught in Korean, all instruction, as well as all commerce, will be conducted in English.

By 2015, if all goes as planned, about a dozen international schools will open branch campuses in the 900 acres of land. North London Collegiate, consistently ranked the top U.K. international baccalaureate school, became the first official partner of the city in March.

Construction is under way on the British campus, and the school plans to open in September 2011, catering ultimately to 1,400 students. A similarly prestigious Canadian school, Branksome Hall, will start construction early next year, with its opening planned for September 2012.

"It's a project that aims to kill two birds with a stone," said Kim Tae-un, a Jeju official involved in the project. "We hope it will keep inside Korea as many children as possible who otherwise might go abroad to study and also attract as much foreign investment as possible."

The project reflects a growing trend in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia where more and more parents are eager to provide their children with Western education, while their governments want to make their countries more attractive to foreign investors.

Christopher Bogden, project manager of the Jeju education city who is collecting air miles around the world as he travels to lure elite Western schools to Jeju, said the plan aims to enroll 9,000 students from elementary through high school when the city is complete. A further university zone is planned to offer English-language courses to the city's teachers and other residents of the island.

By providing Western educational courses at home, the South Korean government is hoping to reduce the number of Korean families who send their children abroad to study, taking enormous amounts of capital with them and often fracturing families.

"It is estimated that over 30,000 Korean families invest in sending one or more of their children overseas for pre-collegiate education," Bogden said. "That's a huge overseas investment."

Assuming minimal transportation costs, Bogden estimates that those families spend $50,000 to $75,000 per child per year. "The government would like to keep not only the children at home but the money at home also," he said.

Jeju-born student Oh Ji-su, who studied at Branksome Hall in Canada from middle school, when she had just turned 13, until she graduated from high school in 2009, testifies to the merits of studying in Western educational environs.

Oh, now 20, who has just begun university studies at the London School of Economics, said she and her mother, art gallery owner Ahn Hye-kyoung, discussed the difference between her education and that of her brother, who stayed in Korea.

"His style of education was enforcing knowledge into the head," she said, noting that Korean students traditionally spend very long hours studying, with much of it being rote learning.

"We were encouraged to have our own viewpoints," Oh said. "It was important to be able to argue, to listen to others and to make your own decisions."

Ahn said it was a difficult decision for her to send her daughter abroad at such a young age but thought that it was worth a try.

"In the beginning, I was always nervous," the mother said. "The first year, she hardly called me, hardly e-mailed me. I just wrote letters and sent books and articles so she wouldn't lose her cultural identity."

Ahn said the relationship between her and her daughter was difficult to maintain, despite her daughter returning home every vacation. She identified the hardest part of sending children abroad to study is the lost opportunities to bond with their families.

"It was actually during my gap year at home when I got to really know my dad and be close to him," Oh said.

For many families, the social impact is more drastic as many mothers accompany their young children overseas, leaving the fathers behind to earn money to support their distant families.

Koreans commonly refer to these lone fathers in bird imagery: eagle fathers have enough money to visit the family at will, geese fathers see their families only when they return at school vacation times and penguin fathers can only pine for their wives and children from afar.

"There's a desire to provide an alternative to that experience here in Korea," Bogden said, citing another reason the Korean government is sponsoring the project. "There's more and more research on the impact on the family of the children and very often the mother going off overseas," he said.

Cases of depression and suicide by the lone fathers have been documented. The government also helps to attract international students from neighboring countries. The recruitment road show will visit cities in Korea and China, including Hong Kong, from late November through early December.

"Jeju itself is within a two-hour flight of 700 million people," Bogden said. "We will be reaching out and looking to recruit children from around Northeast Asia, as well as expat kids, to give the schools a diverse and international student population."

The schools engaged in talks as potential partners charge about $30,000 to $35,000 a year just for tuition and fees, Bogden said. "We are hoping to cost significantly less than that, closer to $25,000."

Ahn estimates that she and her husband had spent 70 million won ($66,000) a year for her daughter to attend Branksome Hall. However, she sees many advantages from her daughter's experience overseas.

"She is much more independent than other Korean kids and I respect that," she said.

She was unsure whether they would have kept Oh at home to study if Branksome Hall had been a part of the Jeju Global Education City at the time.

"If the school could continue its mission in Jeju as it did in Canada, maybe I would have considered it," she said.

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