by Anne Haarmann
Social Studies Teacher at Tenakill Middle School in Closter, New Jersey
It was with a deep sense of gratitude and excitement that I embarked on my 14-day journey to the Republic of Korea. I want to thank the Korean Parent Group in Closter for their generosity and help in sending me to learn about their homeland. The support of the Closter administration, my colleagues and students is also deeply appreciated. This once in a lifetime trip was a tremendous learning experience, one that continues to inspire me.
I think of the Sejong cultural exchange mission as one trip with many journeys. As the seventh grade social studies teacher at Tenakill Middle School I looked at this trip through many different lenses, the same ones we frequently use to view the world in my classroom. Geographically Korea is a beautiful country covered with rolling hills and mountains. It is also a conscientious nation committed to preserving the environment. I was impressed by the nation's ability to manage their enormous growth while preserving their pristine environment for future generations. Korea maintains strong ties to its agricultural roots. Among the many high rises on the outskirts of Seoul (where sixteen million residents reside) one can glimpse small patches of green where farmers still grow crops. Living and socializing with my hosts and interacting with the many Koreans I met, I saw the strong community connection that exists in Korean society and how it is embedded in so many of their daily routines. Seeing people go about the everyday business of their lives, selling fish at the Jalgachi Market in Busan, sharing a meal (in every sense of the word) and worshipping in their chosen faith are the moments that brought me closest to the people and their culture. I felt most connected between my world in New Jersey and Korea when we spent an afternoon visiting Yonsei University and Sook Myung Girls School. Standing in front of a classroom of excited tenth graders speaking about our trip I could see the girls were as delighted to meet the three educators from New Jersey, as we were to meet them. The emotional journey was the one that bonded us as a group. Without a doubt, the journey each of our young adoptees and their families bravely took and the generosity of spirit they exhibited in sharing their highs and lows made the trip a poignant one for many of us. We were a mixed group of travelers: educators, Korean-American students, parents with their children and Sejong staff members. Each person brought their unique perspective to the group and as we learned about Korea, its people and culture we learned from one and other as well.
Learning with and through others was very meaningful in Korea and throughout our travels I felt strong connections to people, places and events. Standing in the Gwangju National Cemetery solemnly watching Hyaekyung Jo light a candle to honor the victims of the Korean Democratization Movement of 1980 was one of those moments. It was there that I felt the struggles of a nation that fought to preserve their culture through centuries of aggression, saw it tom apart in a proxy war and despite that enormous division moved forward to create a stable democracy in their post war world. My Korean American students are just a generation away from the political strife of Korea in the late 20th century. The American Revolution they learn about in social studies was two centuries ago yet the experience of fighting for what you believe in and establishing self-government is similar, an endeavor that is rarely easy or bloodless. This experience reminded me there are so many ways for my students to individually relate to their learning. Through my many experiences in Korea I hope to help my students develop an authentic appreciation of their culture while making personal connections to its history and the lessons they learn in and out of the classroom.
In time, I began to see the Sejong trip as so much more than a cultural exchange. It is a mission to build deeper connections, understanding and respect between people. Traveling to Korea with Sejong was a unique opportunity to get to know the Korean people and their nation and to not just learn but to truly live the culture.