Korea in the side-view mirror: Reflections of a former Volunteer

By Steve Schuit
May 21, 2015

It was pure serendipity. 

The acceptance letter from Washington arrived September 2, 1973, smack on my birthday. Wherever I was assigned, I thought, I was surely meant to go. Less than three months later, I found myself on a very cold hillside, overlooking a lake on the outskirts of Daegu, South Korea's third largest city. Fifty of us, naive and hopeful Peace Corps Volunteers from nearly every corner of the U.S., were about to embark on a transformative 90-day training experience that included Korean language training, cross-cultural understanding and teaching English as a second language.

After our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, I was assigned to teach English at Keimyung College in Daegu. Korea in those days was a developing country; there was virtually no middle class, few private cars, our classrooms were either freezing cold or sweltering, and always poorly lit. But Korean students then were all on a mission — working hard to succeed in school and to learn English to help propel their country forward. Little did they know they were indeed participating in a historic economic miracle.

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer then was challenging. There were few expats, fewer phones and if you sent a letter home, you'd be lucky to hear back in four to six weeks, if at all. Communication was face to face. You would make arrangements days in advance to meet at a specific time and place, write it down and keep your fingers crossed. Students clamored for time with you to practice their English and to find out as much as possible about the world outside Korea. It was, as the Peace Corps ad says, "The toughest job you will ever love."

When I left Korea in the mid-70s I was certain I would never see it again. As the years passed, the recollections of my life in Korea crystallized into increasingly romanticized memories. They became nearer and dearer to me in my life's side-view mirror.

I married, raised a family and enjoyed a career in human resource management, banking, teaching and consulting — all of which allowed me to travel internationally and to keep the wanderlust, first acquired during my Peace Corps days, well nourished. Much to my surprise, business took me back to Korea, first for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and then on several trips to lead management seminars for Korean managers. Korea just kept calling me. Eventually, I answered.

Fast forward to 2011. Korea, now the 15th strongest economy in the world, welcomed me back as a professor of English. I have returned to the same metropolitan area I once lived in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am now on the faculty of Yeungnam University, a vibrant, international campus with 27,000 students.

My Korean students today are the sons and daughters of those very spirited students I taught years ago. My two stints in Korea have become bookends on my life. Who says you can't go home again?

Steve Schuit