Brigid Otieno ’09: Teaching English in South Korea
by Brandy R. Jackson
Life after graduation for Brigid Otieno ’09 has been more than she ever imagined. For the past year, her life has been filled with adventure and training, but more importantly, service. Otieno was accepted into the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program in the spring of 2009. For one academic year, fresh college graduates, graduate students and young professionals are chosen to serve as a U.S. ambassador throughout many parts of the world. Last May, Otieno graduated from Trinity with a bachelor of arts in international affairs, and being the top scholar she is, was also inducted into the esteemed honor society Phi Beta Kappa.
Serving as an English teaching assistant in South Korea, Otieno currently works with high school students to help develop their English language abilities while learning about the South Korean culture. Making the transition to South Korea was certainly a new quest; however, it was not a new journey for Otieno. For one, she is from Rochester, New York, but is a true native of Kenya. Already she has had the opportunity to travel and study abroad extensively to locations such as Morocco, Brussels and Eastern Europe, just to name a few.
Arriving in South Korea in July, Otieno started working at an all-girls high school in the small town of Yeongcheon. She first went through an extensive six-week orientation at Kangwon University. Her training consisted of learning the South Korean culture and language, and teaching workshops. “I think I’m the sixth or seventh Fulbright teacher who has been placed in my particular school, and due to that experience, my school life here is wonderful. The staff is welcoming and the students are very nice as I try and learn the ropes and learn how the system works,” says Otieno. This experience has allowed her to observe first-hand the similarities and differences between the South Korean and American educational systems. South Korea’s elementary schools are comprised of grades one to six, followed by middle school that lasts for three years, and high school for another three years. Otieno observes that students in Korea are individuals highly dedicated to their education. “The greatest difference between the American education system and teaching in South Korea is the intensity and rigorous curriculum and schedule that Korean students undergo.”
Like the American educational system, South Korean students are educated within the core subjects, which include math, the sciences, humanities and foreign languages. Otieno describes a typical day for a student, arriving early for school and returning home well after midnight. Students usually apply a great deal of time in “self-study” sessions; however, other students can choose to attend “Hagwons,” which are private academies specializing in many different subjects. Otieno notes that her teaching colleagues have expressed concerns that the education system lacks creativity and relies heavily on “cram schools” and independent private tutoring. As a result of this strict scholarly discipline, South Korea has a great reputation for preparing individuals to be highly competitive and well-prepared for the workforce. Nevertheless, the rigorous academic environment comes with some criticism.
As for Otieno’s personal teaching experience, educating students with low-level English-speaking abilities has been a challenge. However, having the heart of a true educator, she has been motivated to overcome the many obstacles that come with being a new teacher. As her teaching style progresses, she continues to learn the skills and techniques needed to accommodate her 450 students. “There are really no expectations of me as a teacher as everyone around me sees me as an ‘ambassador’ or a path to understanding the United States. With no clear objectives from my school and students, I assess the students, their interests, abilities, strengths and weaknesses and make lessons that match their level.” The greatest part of her job is seeing the academic success of each student. It gives her great joy to see her students learn more about her life, family and the progress of the United States. Otieno makes it clear that interacting with each class once a week does not allow a dramatic impact on their lives. However, because students are using what they have learned in class in their daily lives, “I am happy and all my troubles and headaches are worth it in the end,” says Otieno.
Otieno credits her preparation for this moment as a Fulbright student to her upbringing and encouragement from her family, especially her mother. Receiving an education from Trinity developed her self-esteem and confidence, but more importantly the environment encouraged her to have her own voice. “Trinity definitely has a unique atmosphere and I am very satisfied. As I have become a unique individual capable of accomplishing all my goals, my students are able to see this strength and feel empowered to approach me about the issues they face.” It is Otieno’s humble, yet driven spirit that allows her to accomplish the many goals she has set before her. For fun Otieno spends her weekends exploring the South Korean culture with other Fulbright teachers as well as bonding with her host family. When asked what her motto in life is, she responds with her all-time favorite quote by the wise Mahatma Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Without a doubt, Brigid Otieno lives this example.