Alumnus Namgi Park Shapes Present and Future Korean Education

by John Conroy

When Namgi Park was 7 years old, he moved from his rural town in South Korea to live with his aunt in the city for a year. From age 8 on, he and his brother lived together. They cooked and cleaned without a heating system or washing machine. They had very little. It was not until he went to middle school, was taught English by Peace Corps volunteers, and heard more about the United States that his world began to open up a bit and he saw the possibilities for his future. Park’s teachers told him that he could go to the United States and they would support him. He considered their offer but told them that he loved his country and didn’t want to leave at that time but perhaps he would go “when I go to graduate school.” He was then 12 years old.

Park initially was reluctant to become involved with education. “In middle school, I hated teachers, because for a long time I fought with them. I thought I never wanted to be one,” Park says. However, he realized that they also cared about him and gave him motivation, enough so that when he graduated from high school, he went to Seoul National University’s College of Education and earned his teaching license.

“Sometimes life is like that. In the end, I found out that it really fit me,” he says. And then, in graduate school, he began to focus on educational administration. “Another thing I found out was that education can change the world, because we try to change the system, but in the end, it can be successful only when we can change people.”

In 1989, at the age of 29, Park had finished his master’s degree and was working as an educational researcher at the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE). He wanted to earn his PhD and had applied to multiple universities, but he could not attend any without scholarship funding. In May of that year, the World Wide University Congress was holding a conference in Washington, D.C., at which the KCUE president was supposed to present a paper but had to back out at the last minute. KCUE looked for one member from the council’s research center to attend the conference. Park was chosen.

A friend of Park’s was already enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and arranged an interview for Park with a faculty member while he was in the United States. After presenting at the conference, Park flew to Pittsburgh and met with Professor John Weidman, then chair of the School of Education’s Department of Administrative and Policy Studies.

Namgi Park poses with Alan Lesgold, Michael Haas, and Eleonor Rico in the Cathedral of Learning’s Korean Nationality Room.

After an hour-long interview, Park says, ”[Weidman] told me I was very lucky, as he happened to have a research assistantship open and would give it to me.” Park went back to South Korea, got his paperwork in order, and returned to the United States to study at the School of Education.

At the time, Weidman was focused on German education, but at Park’s urging, he later went to South Korea for a lecturing tour. “After that, he became a specialist in Asian education. We even wrote a book together on Korean higher education,” Park says.

Park ultimately earned his PhD at the School of Education in international and developmental education, taking with him many experiences. “One thing about that time is that it widened my perspectives, because if I had studied in South Korea, I would not have international friends like I do now. I learned how to study and how to do research, and I gained an interest in comparative education. Before coming to Pitt, I thought I was interested in higher education, but I realized that comparative education was a strong field.”

Park returned home to South Korea after graduation with some new concepts and ideas. “In the 1980s, we used a strong education system; what I mean is that we were ‘in control’ and sometimes hit the kids and were angry with them a lot of the time. When I went to the United States, I found it was totally different from us, and when I came back to South Korea, I told teachers soon we cannot hit kids anymore. We now have to develop classroom management skills. After 10 years, the South Korean government prohibited teachers from hitting students.”

Upon his return, he was hired as a professor at Gwangju National University of Education (GNUE) and also was invited by the South Korean Ministry of Education to work as a researcher, consultant, team leader, and advisory committee member on various policies. These policies included attempting to globalize the South Korean education system; changing the university admissions policy; and modifying the professor, K–12 teacher, and school district system performance evaluations. He says the highlight of his career occurred when he became the youngest person ever to be elected GNUE president, a position he held from 2008 to 2012.

Park celebrates Professor John Weidman's 70th birthday in October 2015 with a dinner in Seoul with former students: from left, Heejin Park, PhD, 2011; Sang-Myong Shin, PhD, 1997; Young Shik Kim, PhD, 2000; Eun Kyung Lee, PhD, 2012; and Yejin Oh, EdD, 2015.

Over the past five years, he has focused on training future teachers: “I spend more time with my students because if I make one future teacher better, he or she can change thousands of students.” He also is devoting his time to research to explain the Korean education phenomenon as well as writing a book on the subject of neomeritocracy, which he says “reveals the shadow of meritocracy and suggests a new social and education paradigm for the coming decades.”

Park purposefully toed the line between educating and creating the policies that affect educators. “I love to teach students, but I want to know more about the government policy and want to do something for the government,” he says. “At the university, I teach classroom management and tell teachers what they should do if a student does not listen to them, and for the government, I tell it what should be done on higher education policies and the national education system.”

Despite his busy workload and the 14- hour plane flight, Park has remained in close contact with the School of Education. He not only coauthored a book with Weidman and wrote chapters for the books of school faculty, he also returned as a visiting professor three times, in 2000, 2007, and 2013. He typically has stayed for a year, teaching and conducting research with faculty members. He received the School of Education’s Departmental Alumni Award from the Department of Administrative and Policy Studies in 2009 and the University of Pittsburgh 225th Anniversary Medallion in 2013. In 2017, he will begin his role as president of the Korean University of Pittsburgh Alumni Association and will be making a gift to help with the recruitment of fellow Korean students to the School of Education.

“Namgi is very energetic and hardworking, as is apparent by his accomplishments over the years. His management skills were apparent even as a graduate student,” says Weidman. “He helped to organize a metropolitan Pittsburgh Korean student association that included members from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University as well as other higher education institutions throughout the area. And after graduating, he encouraged several Korean students to come to Pitt to study with me for their doctorates, including a former deputy minister of education. He also has been helpful to Korean alumni after they return home from Pittsburgh.”

“It is important to experience various kinds of worlds that exist and most of all meet new people who have exactly the same hopes and dreams as you do,” says Park. “When I was president of the university and sent students to America, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Russia, they witnessed firsthand the similarities and the differences of education systems and the challenges of being a teacher in these countries. In America, you will acquire many ideas and build yourself a human network, as one classroom is like a globe. The United States continues to be the center of education and research of the whole world.”

JOHN CONROY is manager of marketing communications for the Pitt School of Education.