Educating the World in the Incheon Free Economic Zone

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Interview with Dr. James Larson, Vice President of SUNY Korea
Thursday, August 18th, 2016
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Located in Songdo, south Incheon, SUNY Korea is well-positioned within what is known as the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) – an area that covers an excess of 51,000 acres. Together with Yeongjong and Cheongna, Songdo was designed to enhance Korea’s international appeal by leveraging its proximity to both China and Japan. The IFEZ project has been an ambitious foray into a new kind of international business and leisure culture in Korea, but in fact is becoming much more than that. Songdo in particular is well on its way to being an epicenter of sorts for an internationally minded educational environment. A highly regarded international school is located there, as is the Songdo Global University Campus (SGUC).

SUNY Korea was among one of the first to open its halls to students at the Global University Campus in 2012 and will be graduating its first cohort of undergraduates in January 2017. Their degrees will be identical to those given at Stonybrook University in New York.

James F. Larson, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs at SUNY Korea received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and has had decades-long ties to Korea, first with the Peace Corps and later as a Fulbright Scholar to Yonsei University. As an educator and expert on communications research, he is clearly excited about SUNY Korea’s mission to create a new paradigm for education, an entirely possible feat given their unique partnership with the government of Korea. At Songdo, the opportunities afforded to the students at SUNY Korea are not lost on him, and he brims with confidence about SUNY Korea’s students rising to meet the challenges of the world. According to Dr. Larson, in terms of vision and physical location of SUNY Korea’s Songdo campus, opportunities abound. Below is an excerpt of an interview with Dr. Larson.

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James F. Larson, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs at SUNY Korea


Q: It seems that SUNY Korea has a very specific vision of the kind of student they want to produce. In your blog, you compare this vision with that of Stanford University’s new Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which encourages service, collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship. Could you please elaborate?

A: Now that Korea has developed its economy to the point that it has, this country is in a position to bring students from developing countries around the world and give something back to them. And even though we’re living in this hyperconnected digital era, human networks are still important. When I was at Standford [in the 1970s] there was a lot of back and forth between the university and industry … so there were personal networks. And in any given setting those personal networks facilitate various forms of collaboration – where you don’t view the university as an ivory tower. We are creating a new paradigm for education here. Not just for Korea but for the world. POSCO’s global R and D Center and their Global University are near here; so is Samsung Biologics. And we also have a number of United Nations organizations right here in Songdo. Part of the challenge in the 21st century is educating young people without walls that separate the university from industry or the UN organizations, the NGOs or the government. With the development of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the mobile apps ecosystem connected to it, plus advances in transportation globalization, it’s become more and more apparent that we live on one planet. I think in order to claim to be a leading educational institution in today’s world, it’s an absolute imperative to begin to address some of these global problems. In order to identify these problems and then find solutions, you need service, collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship.


Q: In what ways have SUNY Korea’s students benefitted from SUNY’s unique partnership with Korea?

A: The main benefit that our undergrad students have realized is that by spending three years here and one year in New York, during their entire four years they will be taking all English language coursework – all a part of the Stonybrook curriculum. And the degree requirements are all Stonybrook’s, so when the students get their degree in January it’ll be the same Bachelor of Science degree. Also keep in mind that our faculty are “global citizens.” What we’re building here is a program that will be internationally competitive. At SUNY Korea we’re trying to create a new paradigm of education that involves trying to put together not only a global faculty but a global student body -- because that helps with addressing problems – as we were discussing earlier.


Q: This idea of international education – the idea of having a mixed, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic student body – that in and of itself must be an attractive feature of this school. And with its proximity to communications and technology industries right here in the IFEZ as well as the rest of Korea, surely SUNY Korea appeals to North American students as well?

A: Absolutely. It is important for us to actively market our programs to students from North America and Europe. I think we have the best kept secret in study abroad right here. There are advantages that we ought to make use of to bring students here to study – students from North America who want to study advanced digital networks. The most advanced digital networks in the world arguably are right here in south Korea, so why study them from somewhere else if you have the chance to come here? So far we have a few – very few so far – North American students. But I want to mention that in terms of the goal of a more global campus I am personally going to be working hard with our president and our staff to try to get the word out and do more recruitment of North American students.

But another comment I want to make is that roughly 75% of our students are ethnically Korean – they’ve lived many years overseas with their parents so they’ve attended international schools. Many of them are bilingual, some are trilingual so it’s actually a much more globalized group than you would think. So the Korean diaspora is well represented here. But I really want to underscore the point about the opportunities that are here for students from North America – I experienced that at the graduate level in my own life having the privilege to be at Stanford for 4 years with students from all over the world. If those other graduate students had not been there it might have been a different experience. To do this, we need to make good use of social media and the digital channels because that’s how a lot of the younger students will find out. Also another key may be scholarship assistance for some of them, as they may be dissuaded by the costs. And the final thing is… misconceptions about Korea. It’s quite common when visitors come from the United States or Europe. Frequently, they’re very sketchily informed about this country – confusing it with Japan or China, for example.

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Q: In your experience, how prepared are Korean students for SUNY Korea and the North American higher educational system in general?

A: Some of this is related to language. We have an intensive English program and so there are placement tests, and students get some assistance. We also have tutoring, although a majority of the Korean students have had overseas experiences so they’ve had cross cultural encounters or they’ve attended international schools. We really rather strictly adhere to keeping all the class instructions in English. And the course I taught last semester was in a flip classroom format where the students were divided into teams; that also helps because they’re randomly assigned to teams and so with any luck, the random assignment will mix up the language capabilities of the class so you don’t get all of the students who are struggling with English in one group and all of the that are fluent in another group.


Q: Additionally, what is life like in Songdo? That is, as a foreigner who spends the better part of his day here, I am curious to know what you think of Songdo – and by extension the IFEZ in general. Also, what would you tell someone – foreigner or not – about working and/or living in Songdo?

A: I would describe life in Songdo as "getting better all the time," as transportation links to Seoul are improved and the infrastructure for housing, shopping and business is built out in Songdo itself. On a recent visit to Gangnam I drove through the new private expressway with its tunnels that cut 15-20 minutes off the drive time, and I understand that high-speed rail links to Seoul are scheduled to open by the end of this year.

I know there is a common perception among Koreans that Songdo is too far from the centers of power and activity in Seoul, but for me personally and for SUNY Korea, that is more than offset by the advantages of our location just 25 minutes from Incheon International Airport in the middle of a burgeoning air, sea, land and education hub in Northeast Asia. The industry presence here, led by such companies as Samsung Biologics and POSCO, along with offices of the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund and numerous other UN-affiliated organizations is also a big plus.

On a day-to-day basis, there are other advantages to living here, including the moderating influence of the nearby ocean on weather. We are typically a few degrees Celsius cooler in the summer than Seoul and a bit warmer during the coldest months of winter. Bike paths lead everywhere in Songdo and there are many nice parks, including the impressive Central Park. The environment in these parks is improving over time as the trees and shrubs grow and mature. For me, having lived many years in Seoul and for nearly three years in Daejeon, Songdo is much more comfortable than I had expected before moving here.


Q: In terms of admission, are there different admissions criteria for different demographics?

A: Our admission efforts differ according to each countries’ situation, but admission is based on academic merit, and the admission standards that that we follow are Stonybrook’s standards. The admission decision is made by Stonybrook University. For Ph. D. admissions, there is an admissions committee on which sit two faculty members from SUNY Korea and two from Stonybrook University. It is a joint decision. Here, we only handle recruitment such as holding regular recruitment events at COEX to promote application, but the application itself is online and the requirements are based on the SUNY system. So the applicant is applying to SUNY and simply indicting the SUNY Korea campus. This ensures quality.

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Q: All SUNY students are required to study one year at SBU in New York. In terms of housing and other ancillary costs, what kind of program does the school have to offset some of the costs of moving abroad for a year and have students voiced an opinion as to whether going to Stonybrook for one year was a financial burden?

A: I’m not aware of any examples of students who couldn’t go because of finances. We do offer a range of scholarships including shared prosperity scholarships for students from developing countries. I think there are about 10 or more scholarship categories and our president himself is very active in soliciting industry support for student scholarships. For students from the developing countries, some of them are supported by their own governments and some are supported by these scholarships.


Q: Please tell me about the plans to make the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) available to SUNY Korea in 2017.

A: We’re getting a lot of enquiries. This has been planned for a number of years. The plan is just about ready to implement: in the fall of 2017, we will open two undergraduate programs: the fashion design program and the fashion business program. Those are their two oldest programs. The fashion design management also places a lot of emphasis on industry ties and the opportunity to do internships. Both are two year programs. As far as I know everything is on schedule for next year. We had a fairly large delegation of FIT faculty members and administrators here and they were quite excited.

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