Elite South Korean University Rattled by Suicides
DAEJEON, South Korea — It has been a sad and gruesome semester at South Korea’s most prestigious university, and with final exams beginning Monday the school is still reeling from the recent suicides of four students and a popular professor.
Academic pressures can be ferocious at the university, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist, and anxious school psychologists have expanded their counseling services since the suicides. The school president also cinded a controversial policy that humiliated many students by charging them extra tuition if their grades ped.
After the last of the student deaths, on April 7, the Kaist student council issued an impassioned statement that said “a purple gust of wind” had blown through campus.
“Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us,” the council said. “We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework.
“We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”
Young people in South Korea are a chronically unhappy group. A recent survey found them to be — for the third year in a row — the unhappiest subset among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Education Ministry in Seoul said 146 students committed suicide last year, including 53 in junior high and 3 in elementary school.
Psychologists at the university said very few students had sought counseling in recent days because of the time crunch brought on by finals. Ironically, during this period of maximum stress, therapists were handling only a handful of cases, mostly for anxiety.
“Remember that the students here are still very young and they haven’t had much experience with unpredictable situations,” said Kim Mi-hee, a staff psychologist at the campus counseling center, who estimated that about 10 percent of Kaist students had come to the center for help. “To deal with problems they tend to lock into rumination mode.
“But they’re so smart and so bright, they actually cope with stress pretty well. They have great capabilities of insight, so once they do get treatment, it can go pretty fast.”
But there is still no full-time psychiatrist on call, and Kaist professors receive no training on how to spot overstressed or depressed students. Even the entryway to the counseling suite can feel somewhat less than welcoming. Recent visitors found the front door partially blocked by a dead tree in a broken ceramic planter.
South Korea as a whole ranks first among O.E.C.D. nations in suicide and is routinely among the leaders in developed nations. Subway stations in Seoul have barriers to prevent people from jumping in front of arriving trains, and eight bridges in the capital have installed closed-circuit suicide-watch cameras.
Suicides of singers, models, beloved actors, athletes, millionaire heiresses and other prominent figures have become almost routine in South Korea. A former president, Roh Moo-hyun, threw himself off a cliff in 2009 after losing face with his countrymen.
But the suicides of the four Kaist undergraduates — three jumped to their deaths and a 19-year-old freshman overdosed on pills — have stunned the nation in a profound and poignant way. (The professor, a biologist who was reportedly being audited for the misuse of research funds, hanged himself on April 10.)
The competition for a place in a leading university begins in middle school for most South Korean students. More than 80 percent of Korean young people go to college, and parents here spend more money per child on extra classes and outside tutoring — including military-style “cram schools” — than any other country in the O.E.C.D.
The pressure builds to a single day in November, when a national college entrance exam is held. Some mothers pray at churches or temples throughout the day as their children take the test, which is given only once a year and lasts nine hours. The South Korean Air Force even adjusts its flight schedule so as not to disturb the test takers.
The ultimate goal for most students is acceptance at one of the so-called SKY schools — Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei universities. In South Korea’s status-conscious society, a degree from a SKY school is nearly a guarantee of a big career and lifelong prosperity. Pedigree is everything.
But Kaist is different. The university pays no regard to the national exam and instead recruits almost all of its students from among the elite seniors at special science-oriented high schools. Kaist admits only about 1,000 freshmen each year. A personal interview, high school grades and recommendations from principals count the most.
Kaist students are academically gifted, to be sure, but they are also seen as the future leaders of Korea’s vaunted technology-driven economy. In a sense, once they gain entrance to Kaist, the students become national treasures. As a result, many feel a huge (and sometimes crushing) burden to live up to the country’s expectations. The statement by the Kaist student leaders even referred to Kaist students as “the future luminaries of Korea’s sciences.”
The pressures can become too much for some students, especially those who have always been academic superstars but suddenly find themselves struggling to excel against much stiffer competition. “They’ve always been No. 1 in high school, but once they get to Kaist maybe they’re No. 40, or No. 400, and they realize they can’t possibly keep up,” said Oh Kyung-ja, a Harvard-trained professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University. “The competition can be cruel.”
Suh Nam-pyo, a renowned mechanical engineer who taught for many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became president of Kaist in 2006. He soon instituted a series of changes aimed at modeling Kaist after M.I.T. and other world-class science and research universities.
He mandated, for example, that all courses would be taught in English. That move led to campus-wide consternation because not all students and faculty members were fully fluent in English.
Mr. Suh also engineered a system that required students to pay extra tuition for each hundredth of a point that their grade point average fell below 3.0 (based on a 4.3-point system). All students pay a token fee each semester, Kaist administrators said, but otherwise their tuition is free, financed by government scholarships.
Under the so-called punitive tuition program, a bad semester could cost a student’s family thousands of dollars.
The program, which was applauded at first, has since led to deep humiliation and anxiety among many students. Those who struggled and lost their full rides suddenly saw themselves as losers. Some critics, calling it ruthless, even blamed the program for the recent suicides.
Mr. Suh, faced with withering criticism, recently ended most parts of the tuition plan, and the school announced that some courses would now be taught in English and Korean.
rattle: [남을] 당황하게[어리둥절하게, 놀라게] 하다
무서워서 오싹해지는, 소름 끼치는
유명한, 일류의, 신망이 있는
with + 목적어 + ~ing/p.p.: 목적어가 ~한 상태로[에서]
ex) With night coming on, we started for home. 밤이 되어 집으로 향했다.
reel: (강타•쇼크 등으로) 비틀거리다, 휘청거리다
사나운, 포악[흉포]한, 잔인한
rescind: 폐지[폐기, 철회]하다
dip: [실업률•인기 등이] 조금[일시적으로] 감소하다
정열적인, 열정적인, 열렬한
a gust of wind: 한 바탕 부는 바람
be cornered into ~: ~에 몰아넣어지다
확고 부동한, 불굴의; 엄한; 가차없는
smother: …을 질식시키다, 숨막히게 하다
suffocate: [남을] 호흡이 곤란하게 하다; …을 숨차게[불쾌하게] 하다
만성적으로 cf) a chronic illness: 지병
부분 집합, 작은 한 벌, 작은 당
고도의 긴장이 요구되는 때 cf) crunch: 위기, 긴장
bring on ~: [병•전쟁을] 나게 하다, 일으키다
예측할 수 없는
생각에 잠김, 묵상 cf) ruminate: 묵상[심사숙고]하다[about, on, over ‥]
cope with ~: ~에 대처하다
정신과 의사 cf) psychologist: 심리학자
[의사•병사 등이] 호출에 즉시 응할 수 있는, 대기하고 있는
…을 발견[탐지]하다, …을 지목하다
less than ~: 조금도[결코] ~ 아니다, ~ 이라고는 (도저히) 말할 수 없다
여자 상속인 cf) heir: 상속인
figure: (세간에 이목을 끄는) 인물, 사람; (특히) 저명 인사, 거물 cf) celebrity: 유명[저명] 인사, 명사
lose face: 체면을 잃다 cf) maintain face: 체면을 유지하다
overdose: [약을] 너무 많이 투여하다[with ‥]
stun: [남을] 놀라게 하다, 아연하게 하다
cram school: 수험 예비 학교, 입시 학원 cf) cram English for the exam: 벼락치기로 영어시험 공부하다
adjust: 조정하다, 조절하다, 맞추다
so as not to ~: ~하지 않기 위해서 cf) so as to ~: ~하기 위해서
[평온•휴식•안녕을] 방해하다, 어지럽히다; [남을] 방해하다, 훼방 놓다
최후의, 최종의, 궁극의, 결정적인
사회적 지위를 의식하는
번영, 번성, 번창
훌륭한 가계, 명문; 계통, 가계, 혈통
과학 중심의 cf) consumer-oriented: 소비자 중심의
admit: 입학시키다; 인정하다 ex) He admitted his guilt. 그는 그의 죄를 인정하였다.
recommendation: 추천(장) cf) reference: 추천서
가치가 있다, 중요하다
천부의[우수한] 재능이 있는; 탁월한 재능을 지닌
크게[과도하게] 칭찬 받는, 자만의
기술 주도(형)의; 기술에 기인한 cf) a market-driven economy: 시장 주도 경제
in a sense = in one sense = in some sense = in a certain sense: 어떤 의미에서는; 어느 정도
압도적인, (상대를) 납작하게 만드는; 통렬한; 꼼짝 못하게 하는 듯한; 결정적인
…에 따라 생활하다; [기대•명성 등에] 부응하다
refer to A as B: A를 B라고 부르다[지칭하다]
luminary: (그 분야의) 선각자, 권위자, 지도자
stiff: [시험 등이] 어려운, [경쟁이] 치열한; 고된, 힘드는
[사람•공부•생각•유행 등에] 뒤떨어지지 않도록 따라가다
유명[고명]한, 명성 있는
institute: …을 시작하다, 열다, 개시하다
model A after B: B를 모방하여 A를 만들다
mandate: …하도록 (공식적으로) 명령하다
lead to ~: ~의 결과를 가져오다; ~의 원인이 되다
깜짝[섬뜩] 놀람, 대경실색, 경악
명목상의 사용료 cf) token: 얼마 되지 않는, 최소한의; 약간의, 사소한, 이름[명색]뿐인
처벌[형벌]을 위한, 징벌적인
applaud: 박수 갈채하다; 칭찬하다
굴욕(감), 체면 손상 cf) humiliate: …에게 굴욕을 주다, 창피를 주다, [남의] 자존심을 상하게 하다
걱정, 고민, 불안, 염려
full ride: 모든 비용이 지불된
무정한, 인정머리 없는, 무자비한
괴멸적인, 압도적인; [눈초리•말투 등이] 기를 죽이는 (듯한) cf) wither: 움츠러들게 하다, 위축시키다
By MARK McDONALD
Published : May 22, 2011
Source : The New York Times
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