Actually, almost all of the teenagers in South Korea study not because of their interest in the material, but just because they feel pressure to get into a good university. I was one of them.
One fall day a few years ago in Seoul, as Sunghee Myung took her seat at the testing center, she felt the weight of it all. How she would perform in the next eight hours, she was told, would determine how successful she would be in life.
For this moment, she had been studying day and night for years. Students who score well on the College Scholastic Ability Test are admitted to South Korea’s top universities and are practically guaranteed jobs at the country's best companies. This college entrance exam is much like the SATs in the United States, but for which the pressure to score well is much greater.
“Actually, almost all of the teenagers in South Korea study not because of their interest in the material, but just because they feel pressure to get into a good university,” says Myung. “I was one of them.”
Having come of age in a competitive economy still climbing back from the 1997 Asia financial crisis, students like Myung view the exam as their only certain way to success. When it's being administered, the whole country holds its breath. Just this November, officials banned flights over the testing centers, businesses closed and, reported Jennifer Goren for Public Radio International, an extra 1,000 or so taxis drove a rush of anxious students to their destinies.
The stress must have gotten to her. Imagine how defeated Myung felt when she failed to score high enough on the exam. “I’d felt kind of sick and tired of living my life,” she says. “Also, I thought I’m not a happy person, because I was trying to catch up to my peers, trying to live others’ (parents, teachers, friends) lives.”
So she did what any good student would do. “I made up my mind to study one more year to enter a university," she says. " Then, I realized I never enjoyed studying itself, and even I hated studying. I finally figured out there is no way I could do well if I hated it.”
Educational pressure on teenagers in South Korea is cited as one inescapable trigger of the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that Myung felt. While this pressure on the nation's youth has produced some of the world’s highest performing students in math and reading, it has an effect that doesn't often make news. South Korea is home to some of the world’s most depressed teenagers, according to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
After the test, Myung battled feelings of inadequacy. “I wanted to figure out what’s wrong with me, so I began reading books on philosophy, psychology, self-development, literature, science and so on," she says. "The books gave me cause to rethink my life. Finally, one day I said to myself, ‘This is my life! I can do it if I like what I'm studying!' After that moment, I am living every single one of my days with happiness and gratitude.”
With her new outlook, she enrolled in the Catholic University of Korea that fall of 2012. Now a senior studying what she wants— Information, Communications and Electronics Engineering— Myung is a top-scoring student with an A+ average.
“I don’t try to catch up with anyone. I just try to do my best to understand and learn new materials,” she says. “I’m not comparing myself to other people, because I am a unique person, and who is to say someone is lower than someone else or vice versa?”
Last March, determined to live each day to the fullest, Myung applied to study abroad through SAF at the University of Utah. By August, she had packed a suitcase and flown halfway around the world to experience academic life in America.
“I decided to study abroad at the University of Utah because I’d heard people in Utah are so kind and generous. (Really it is true!) Moreover, I’d heard the university specializes in computer science and I am interested in studying software.”
Having recently completed her first semester abroad, Myung earned an impressive 4.0 grade point average, a rare achievement (even for students who are studying in their first language)."My goal for the near future is to get into a graduate school in the United States," she says. "After that, I want to be a professor to teach students in a university."
Now Myung—not a test—is determining her destiny.
“We live only about 30,000 days,” she says. “Our life is not infinite, so today is the day to start anything! Some people say sacrifice today for tomorrow or the future. But I think that is just a waste of time, because today makes your life.”