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George Mason Korea head sees bigger role for colleges

Songdo-based university offers unique education based on diversity, field experience, Lee says

The general international consensus has been that modern society is transforming at an unprecedented rate, fueled by technological development and an increase in cross-cultural interactions. Despite rapid changes, education has been criticized for failing to foster the talent that can most effectively contribute to society.

Steven K. Lee, the newly appointed president of George Mason Korea, says higher education institutes need to be at the forefront in leading society, rather than taking a backseat, by providing a network through which students can accumulate invaluable experience that better prepares them for the challenges of the real world.

“There has to be an interactive process in cooperation between colleges and government agencies,” he said. “I think it’s high time now that education take the lead and say we have highly prepared students in certain fields so the companies and government agencies make policies based on what is available: the (human) resources.”

Steven K. Lee, the president of George Mason University Korea, speaks during his inauguration ceremony at the Incheon Global Campus concert hall Thursday. (eorge Mason University Korea)
Steven K. Lee, the president of George Mason University Korea, speaks during his inauguration ceremony at the Incheon Global Campus concert hall Thursday. (eorge Mason University Korea)

George Mason Korea takes advantage of being located in Songdo, Incheon, where offices of various international companies and global bodies reside. The university expanded to Korea in March 2014 at Incheon Global Campus, where three other foreign universities ― State University of New York, the University of Utah and Ghent University ― have set up Korean campuses.

But the most distinct merit of Mason Korea, Lee pointed out, is that Korean students can access the U.S. curriculum without leaving the country. Because of this, students can maintain a connection with the local community and do not have to readjust to Korean culture when they graduate, as students who study abroad do.

“Adjusting to (the culture of) Korea-based companies is pretty tough. We (as a university) are in a position where students are able to become fully bilingual and bicultural,” he said.

By taking on a more active role ― instead of maintaining a passive approach ― Lee said students are able to make the jump from the classroom to contributing to society with greater ease.

Lee, a U.S.-educated scholar who replaced interim chief Joy Hughes as the institute’s head, said that George Mason Korea is implementing various efforts to ensure students receive such a boost on campus, one of the key words being “experience.”

“The traditional method of education is academic, test-centered and goal-oriented,” he said. While such experience encompasses cognitive and intellectual learning in the classroom, education must also provide experience outside the classroom, namely engaging in societal and community services, he said. “I want the students to fully utilize the time they have in college so that they are well prepared not only intellectually, but psychologically and mentally as well.”

The mental preparation of students centers on what Lee called the “three C’s”: confidence, competency in discipline or profession and compassion for humanity.

“I think it begins with confidence in oneself. Once you have that confidence, you can grow from that confidence to go and care for the world,” he said. Once one has sustained a certain level of confidence, along with competence in his or her respective field, then the student can become passionate about humanity, he explained.

In a bid to provide experience that aids in fostering such values, Lee said George Mason Korea encourages students to engage in internship opportunities available to students of all grades via multiple memorandums of understanding with major organizations. These institutions include multinational organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations, Green Climate Fund, local firms like Kookmin Bank and education institutions like Chadwick International.

“Being a college is an opportunity for us to network with the society. We cannot exist in isolation. We have to be able to blend in with people of organizations around us,” he said.

George Mason Korea currently runs economics, management and global affairs programs, and plans to add conflict analysis and resolution, accounting and finance, system management and other courses in the near future.

As much as activities outside the classroom matter, learning opportunities provided inside the classroom matter in students’ development, Lee stressed.

“One of the key attractions and resources for GMU as a system is innovation. GMU Korea is no exception,” he said, explaining the university is set to move into a new seven-story building to be completed by the end of this year.

The central theme of the structure would be to provide classroom experience rooted in integrated technology. The technology installed in the classrooms ― which the new president boasts the university has invested more effort in than any other part of the school ― will open doors to interactive lessons with not only students and lecturers at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, but also with partners across the globe.

Just as it is important for schools to procure technology for smart education, having the proper lesson plans conducted via technology is crucial to achieving smart education, Lee said.

“Having the perfect platform is one, how you use technology is equally as important. After all, learning is about human experience,” he said. “Beyond what, it is how.”

But as George Mason Korea ventures into all the opportunities rolled out by the state-of-the-art technology, Lee stressed that the university has to be discreet about planning. This is to ensure that the new education methods do not become mere fads that fade into obscurity after a few years, but are established into long-term strategies.

The key to achieving this, he said, is to recognize diversity in what students seek to accomplish via education, and cater to their respective needs by utilizing different methods of teaching.

Lee claimed that the merit of George Mason Korea is not confined to the curriculum and faculty ― more than 50 percent of whom are from the Fairfax campus ― but also in the student body itself.

“We have students from more than 20 different countries, based on where they attended secondary school. Global diversity in the classroom is a value that cannot be bought,” he said.

Earlier this year, a local lawmaker complained that foreign education institutes in Korea have too many Korean students.

Lee, however, pointed out that contrary to what the students’ lineage may suggest, most of the students at his university, even Koreans, have global backgrounds, contributing to diversity.

“We live in a global world now. Many of us are more bicultural,” he said. “More individuals who are described by the experience, not by the origin of birth.”

The diversity in its classrooms is the edge George Mason Korea has over even some of the prestigious colleges and universities, he said.

“U.S. universities expect students to perform in an American way. We don’t bring that attitude here. When students come here, they are able to be supported by diversity.”

The institution’s goal now, Lee said, is to utilize the unique position it has as a Korea-based U.S. university.

“We are classified as American institution, but how we practice it has Korean elements. Our existence here is to balance the best practices of Korean education and American education, because no country’s education is perfect,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik
Korea Herald Youtube