Auburn University initiative helps local educators reach growing Korean student population

AUBURN – Twelve local teachers and seven Auburn University graduate students will travel to Korea in June as part of the Auburn University Global Initiative in Education project. They will learn about the country’s culture and educational system in an effort to bridge communications gaps with Korean-born students attending school in Auburn, Opelika and Lee County.

The College of Education and AJIN USA, a Chambers County-based metal stamping company that supplies parts for Kia and Hyundai, and its parent company, JOON, LLC, have worked together to help local educators better serve this growing student population. For the second consecutive year, a gift from AJIN USA will provide support for the Global Initiative in Education project. The company has provided more than $120,000 in support of the program.

Andy Gillespie, Auburn University’s assistant provost for international programs, called the establishment of the project a “visionary act.” U.S. Census Bureau statistics show the Korean population in Lee County, Ala., has grown from 312 in 2000 to more than 1,300 in 2010. Koreans are now the most populous Asian group in the county.

Karen Snyder, federal programs coordinator for Auburn City Schools, was among the 14 educators who traveled to Korea in 2011 through the program. She said her experience, which included visits to K-12 schools and two universities, proved invaluable in understanding the needs of students from other cultures. During the 2011-12 school year, more than 700 students enrolled in Auburn City Schools reported speaking languages other than English. ACS students speak 48 different languages in all, with Korean (321 students), Spanish (112) and Chinese (74) being the most common.

Suhyun Suh, project co-director and coordinator of the school counseling master’s program in the College of Education, said educators receive unique insight through their immersion in Korean culture. In addition to visiting cultural landmarks like the Korean Demilitarized Zone and taking a side trip to Shanghai, teachers learn how to better relate to students who may not yet be proficient in English or who may not understand American cultural norms.

“They experienced what it was like to be in a country without the ability to communicate at all,” Suh said. “They have realized what it is like for Korean students in the classroom.”

And they learn how much of a life change Korean-born students are in for when they come to East Alabama. In Seoul, for instance, a young student becomes accustomed to riding the subway to school without an adult chaperone. Children often arrive at school as early as 6:30 a.m., and study quietly until class begins. Unlike American middle and high schools, where students move to different classrooms throughout the day, Korean students remain in one room while being instructed by a rotation of subject area specialists.

Callie Counts, a two-time College of Education graduate and an English as a Second Language teacher at Yarbrough and Wrights Mill Road Elementary Schools in Auburn, said the project has provided valuable professional development and helped her build relationships with Korean parents. Counts said she has seen an increase in the number of Korean parents volunteering at her schools.

“At the beginning of the school year, we have to meet with every parent who has a child in our ESL program,” Counts said. “In most of the meetings, the (Korean) parents would mention something about us having gone to Korea or ask how we liked Seoul. It was a good conversation starter for us.”

Snyder said the Global Initiative in Education Project provides benefits beyond helping students acclimate to a new language and school setting and helping parents connect with educators. The educators who traveled to Korea last year and those who will make the return trip this year have each established themselves as a cultural “go-to person” in their respective schools, Snyder said.

“One of the teachers who went to Korea last year said, ‘just being in that huge city of Seoul reminded me of just how much of a culture shock it must be for those students who come to Auburn,’” said John Dagley, project co-director and associate professor in the College of Education’s counseling psychology program.

Thanks to the Global Initiative in Education Project, it won’t be long before more Korean-born students begin to think of Auburn and the surrounding areas as home.

A video segment and photographs are available on the Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing website at

(Contributed by Troy Johnson.)

Contact: Carol Nelson, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (, or
Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (