Why South Korea should now be on every public policy & public health student’s radar

study in south korea
The secret to success in 2020 could be a study or work stint in the country that's winning 2020: South Korea. Source: Ed Jones/AFP

A few days ago, my very active extended family WhatsApp chat group, usually reserved for unverified forwards and pet memes, pinged with yet another notification:.

“The South Korean foreign minister is good. 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻,” an auntie wrote.

Attached was a link to a BBC interview with the formidable South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Hwa.

Mum was quick to chime in: “Truly woman of substance..eloquent, knowledgeable n yes magnificent👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻. I hope the goons in our govt watch n learn smthg fr her”.

All around the world, praises are made for Kang and South Korea as it went from confirming close to one thousand new cases in a single day to only 105 new cases on Sunday in just the span of a month. As New York City and northern Italy find themselves overwhelmed and under-resourced, each confirming up to 7,200 new cases on Sunday, South Korea is emerging as the model country to copy.

For students of public policy and public health, the message here is clear: Study in South Korea.

Forget Harvard, Oxford and all the other top-ranked universities; South Korea is doing something right, and making the world a better place for it.

When it matters most, amidst an unprecedented pandemic killing thousands of people around the world and paralysing local and global economies, South Korea is winning the containment race.

You know you’re emerging as the world leader in the COVID-19 crisis when the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb tweets:

It wasn’t just the FDA, the head of World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued his own statement, urging other nations to “apply the lessons learned in Korea and elsewhere.”

How did it happen? How did Korea go from being one of the worst-hit, to becoming the remarkable turnaround success story the world needs right now?

One word: Testing. Unlike China, which drastically restricted movement and speech, South Korea took the transparency route. Unlike the US and Europe, which went on lockdown and paralysing its economies, South Korea made testing open and free for all who show symptoms or have a doctor’s referral. Using makeshift “phone booths,” more than 196,000 people had been tested, the largest number compared to any other country worldwide.

Add to this its early intervention, swift follow up measures – like contact tracing and isolation – and the country is now only one of two to #FlattenTheCurve.

This success would not have been possible without strong public leadership, effective public health measures and a highly-efficient business sector.

Heading the effort in government is Minister of Health Park Neungboo, an alum of the country’s flagship Seoul National University. Park earned a BA from the Department of Economics and MA Political Science from the highly competitive national research university in 1982 and 1988 respectively. He also holds a Ph.D from the Graduate School of Social Welfare at the University of California Berkeley.

Then there’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, now a media darling for her eloquent interviews explaining the South Korean government’s honest methods. Kang has a BA Political Science and Diplomacy graduate from Yonsei University as well as MA Mass Communication and PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US.

Chun Jong-yoon is the chief executive and founder of molecular biotech company Seegene, one of the country’s biotech firms that started to make testing kits even before South Korea confirmed any COVID-19 cases. His alma mater? Konkuk University. He also holds a PhD from the University of Tennessee.

I believe their education pathways epitomise an increasingly undeniable truth: The rise of Asian universities commanding as much respect as those in the West. At least in the fields of public policy and public health, as the results show, South Korea is doing something right when many others aren’t.

It should spur any student wanting to make the world better to find inspiration in the paths Kang, Park and Chun took.

It can be through a full-time degree at the same universities they went to. Or applying for a placement in one of the tech firms or startups in the country. Maybe an internship with the South Korean government.

For Mohd Abbas Zaidi, it’s not an exaggeration to say one of these turned into a life-changing event.

study in south korea

From intern to full-time employee at Samsung in Seoul. Source: Mohd Abbas Zaidi

In 2018 when he was a student at the renowned India Institute of Technology, he won an internship at the headquarters of South Korea’s tech giant Samsung.

The 21-year-old electrical engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IIT Kanpur) describes his internship as “one of the best industry internships options” for students in his field.

Now a full-time research engineer, he’s found a position at Samsung’s Language Understanding lab in Seoul, where they’ve won two top global artificial intelligence (AI) machine reading comprehension competitions.

Yes, there are perks — massage chairs, serene view from his work station, a playstation, electronic basketball ring, sleeping room – the opportunity to live in Gangnam, trips to Gyeongbokgung palace and the DMZ, his “fantastic mentor” and the friendliness of the locals.

But “the most impressive part” is the chance to work on large-scale projects despite his limited knowledge,” he told me over email.

“In crude terms my work was focussed on helping QA Systems mimic human-generated answers. This can be applied to personal assistants to make them more humane,” he explained.

“Since Samsung Korea itself is a very big firm, it becomes imperative to mention that the experience is highly subjective depending on the mentor, the team and the lab. Considering the fact that it is the quality of work which matters more than anything else, Samsung is one of the best industry intern options for CSE/EE students,” he said.

study in south korea

People walk past a billboard showing the Samsung Galaxy S6 during a media event at the company’s headquarters in Seoul. Source: Yeon-Je Jung./AFP

I live a privileged life, but I still wonder how my life would have turned out had I followed Mohd Abbas’s footsteps.

Other students shouldn’t be left wondering as I am now.

There are many opportunities available in South Korea — home of the Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” a country that reinvented the pop music landscape, and where they are now winning the COVID-19 war.

Seoul National University, for example, offers 10 to 20 percent of its courses in English. Most of these are concentrated in its colleges of engineering and business.

If you want to bypass the tricky application and visa processes, Asia Internship Programme guarantees an interview with a company within 11 working days.

In other words: The opportunities are there – Go study or intern in South Korea.

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