Call it an irony of business education. For decades, even though the South Korean economy grew dramatically and globally, its MBA programs didn't. What observers called "the Miracle on the Han River," where companies like LG and Samsung broke into the global marketplace, seemed to pass the local business schools by.
Despite the country's speedy development, South Korean business schools, even those with English-language MBA programs, attracted mostly domestic candidates.
But that's been changing recently, due to investment in local business schools. Over the past several years, the South Korean government has been taking steps to improve domestic MBA programs by making them more attractive to international students, including offering scholarships. It has spurred some schools to redesign their curriculum to attract students from abroad.
Yonsei University is one of them. Yonsei offered the first full-time English language in Korea in 1998. But according to associate dean Kil-Soo Suh, the program had only - until recently - been targeting Korean nationals or Korean Americans.
Over the past year, however, Suh has been helping to redesign the program, which will re-launch in the fall. Out of 65 total students, his goal is for half of those to be international students. And within the classes, he says, "much of the coursework will be team-based, each team will consist of four students - two will be international students and two will be Korean students."
In short, "the classroom itself will be a global environment".
Accreditation is also crucial factor when recruiting international students. Yonsei is now one of seven AACSB-accredited business schools with English-language programs in South Korea; the others are the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea University Business School (KUBS), Seoul National University (SNU), Sejong University, SungKyunKwan University (SKK), and Sogang University.
But while global appeal is important, some Korean schools - like SNU - haven't forgotten the importance of the local.
"The nature of the classes at SNU is global," says Bong-Chan Kho, "but we focus more on Korean case studies, so that the students can learn about many domestic cases as well as the global business environment before they graduate."
For Rosa Kim, a 27-year-old Korean American student at SNU, a local focus is important, as is the experience of studying in Seoul.
"This is where my family used to be", says Kim, "and I wanted to experience that, as well as the Korean university life".
Although she's keeping her options open, like many international students, Kim has considered the idea of staying in Korea and working here after she graduates. But is that feasible?
According to Hwa-Yeon Cho at SKK, it is. "If students are well-prepared for it," she says, "they can find good opportunities for successful careers here."
A big part of that preparation is learning, or already knowing, Korean.
Bong-Chan Kho at SNU, says that in his experience, most foreign students come here without any knowledge of Korean.
"But to do business here," says Kho, "they need to master Korean so that they can get a job in Korea."
Fortunately for international students, SNU, like many MBA programs, offers complimentary Korean language classes as part of their curriculum to help them interact and network with the local business community.
Yonsei offers similar classes, but its soon-to-be re-launched Global MBA program will take the concept of interacting in Korea to a new level. Kil-Soo Suh says that the program will pay particular attention to the interface between Korean and international students. The program will also involve a summer internship, generally at a Korean company, which will be filled by two students, one a native Korean student and one an international student.
Cho hopes that this compulsory cooperation will provide a two-way learning experience, and not only "give the international students a chance to learn more about Korean culture, but also help Korean students better learn about the global environment".
Group-based learning can be extremely important to helping international students understand the Korean work culture, because, according to Shigyung Shin, career placement advisor at SNU, the differences can be extreme.
"MBA programs in Korea don't simply copy the programs in the US or in Europe", she says, "but reflect the culture here in Korea. We focus on teamwork. Sometimes, the Western schools can be preoccupied with the "Superhero type" person, rather than valuing team players".
Besides the language and working environment, the culture itself may also take some international students by surprise. In Seoul, for example, where most business schools are, there are 17 million people comprising one of the highest population densities in the world.
According to Bong-Chan Kho at SNU, "Here, our human relationships are generally closer than those in the West, and that can cause some culture shock".
"In the beginning, it was a lot", SNU student Rosa Kim says, "but over time I've adjusted, and my classmates have really helped a lot with that. I can't speak for other international students, but for me it's been smooth and going well so far."
And she definitely recommends the experience, sooner rather than later. "One of the youngest in the class, "I feel like I'm getting the most out of this experience".
"It's very challenging, but I've gained so much already".
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Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr