Back To Top

‘Latin American students wanted’

Korean institutions vie for students from Central, South America

Six years ago, no Guatemalan had ever studied for a full degree in Korea. But now, almost 50 scholars from the Central American country have graduated from universities here and returned to use their Korean degrees to influence politics and business back home.

With some new arrivals in February, more than 50 Guatemalans will be studying at Korean universities, and elite colleges are striving to attract more Latin Americans to create a diverse learning environment.

The number of students from South and Central America has more than doubled from 184 in 2008 to 400 in 2011 ― and top universities are keen to build on this momentum.

Not only do the foreign students make for a more dynamic university life, they can also help promote diplomacy between Korea and their home countries, according to Kleinsy Bonilla, the third Guatemalan to study long-term in Korea.

“We hear frequently the rhetoric of ‘creating or building new leadership,’ but the careers of the Guatemalan alumni from Korean universities are already proving to make this practical,” she said.

“These students in Korea could really change Guatemalan policy. Two people who got degrees here have run for congress. Their influence is growing and that means that the face of Korea is changing in Guatemala.”

Since Kyung Hee University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Guatemalan science and technology ministry, alumni have returned to work on political campaigns in their country’s general elections, and on bilateral relations between Guatemala and Asia for the Guatemalan ministry of foreign affairs.

One graduate is now a Guatemalan government delegate to the U.S. and others are working for Samsung Engineering and Samsung Electronics to promote the firms in Latin American markets.

Two became professors in Guatemalan universities teaching about the Korean economy in courses that they founded after studying here.

Now Kyung Hee University professor and dean of the office of international affairs Gon Khang is seeking to sign similar MOUs with other countries to recruit more international scholarship students.

“It seems to me that globalization is to savor different cultures,” said Khang. “We need to meet with and talk to people from different cultures to do that. That is why we would like to attract students not only from Latin America but from all over the world.”

He has been approached by KAIST and other top Korean universities for advice on how to attract more international students, in an education market where a diverse demographic is appealing to domestic students picking a university.

Latin Americans sought to diversify Korean universities

Guatemalan ambassador to Korea Rafael Salazar said such educational links were benefiting his country too.

“We are trying with Kyung Hee University to increase the number of Latin American students because it is very important for Latin America to increase its education to reach a high level of education with Korea and the whole Asian region because we have many similar situations.” Salazar said.

The ambassador said that strong ties would be increasingly important as Latin American and Asian countries develop. 
Guatemalan students in Korea celebrate their graduation with their ambassador, Rafael Salazar (fourth from right, front row). (Kleinsy Bonilla)
Guatemalan students in Korea celebrate their graduation with their ambassador, Rafael Salazar (fourth from right, front row). (Kleinsy Bonilla)

“Now this region of Asia is leading the new way in economic policy in the whole world so it is very important to increase the number of Latin American students here in Korea. Educational exchange could help improve Latin America’s ties with China, India and ASEAN.

“Especially in engineering, Korea is one of the countries at the top of this kind of education. With these exchanges we have the opportunity to improve our professionals.

“When we arrived here in Korea we had no students at all, but after seven years we have more than 50 Guatemalan students here in Korea and more than 50 who have already graduated from master’s degrees and Ph.D.s,”

And Kleinsy Bonilla, now the first Guatemalan lecturer at a Korean university, is proving how the educational exchange can work both ways.

“My students don’t even know where Guatemala is and that there are over twenty countries that have Spanish as the official language in Latin America,” she said. “They know only about soccer and dance. They think Guatemala is next to Brazil. But I am making efforts to encourage them to explore the cultural wealth of Latin America, home of great civilizations such as the Inca, Maya and Aztecs.”

Likewise, international students can pick up invaluable skills through studying here.

Demetra Gates-Choi, head of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies International Summer Session, said the university’s language courses and students from the U.N.-affiliated University for Peace saw students from around the world gain skills that could influence their work in their home countries.

“Since our university offers many different foreign languages, Korean students become diplomats either within Korea or abroad,” she said.

“In the same way a lot of our international students come to learn Korean and take their knowledge back to their countries.”

Colombian Ph.D. student Edwin Monroy at Seoul National University said that his scholarship from the Korean government targeted people working in government and public agencies in their home countries.

“The idea is that they will come back to their countries and they can be kind of contacts for Korea to do business with. This is especially important in Colombia, where Korea is in the process of signing an FTA,” said the student of electrical engineering wireless technology.

While the student whose time here will run from 2008-2013 said he had found his course interesting, he warned others looking to follow that not speaking Korean could be a problem.

“The language barrier is very huge,” he said. “All my courses are in English and I can speak to my advisor in English but still the language is very difficult. I think that for someone thinking about coming to Korea it would be a good idea to think about coming here to study a masters for two years. For a longer period of time, then it would be a good idea if that person speaks Korean or is willing to learn.”

But he agreed: “Education exchange is definitely a way to increase knowledge and raise awareness of the people in both countries.”

By Kirsty Taylor (