If you were taking a guided tour in Seoul, chances are you’d be visiting Ewha University. Located in the heart of the city, the school is favored by many for its scenic campus and rows of shops and eateries in the vicinity. But less is known about its long and rich history as the nation’s first educational institute for women. It dates back 131 years when women were considered second class citizens and were denied participation in any affairs outside the home. Mary Scranton, an American missionary to Korea had a conviction that education was the only way out of oppression. So she opened a school at her home, with one student; an abandoned girl she’d found on the street. This was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest institution of higher education for women. Today Ewha holds many “firsts” in Korean history: the first female prime minister, doctor, lawyer…and the list goes on and on.
Notwithstanding its glory, Ewha suffered “the worst of times”-to borrow a line from Charles Dickens- last year. When the school announced its plan to launch a cash-grab degree program, students protested for months. The prolonged confrontation took an unexpected turn and revealed the school’s links to a major political scandal involving the Korean president. Student rally turned into public outrage; the rest is history. The whole ordeal left Ewha torn apart. The school’s leadership was put behind bars, students were injured and traumatized from police crackdowns, and Ewha was in the center of media attention for none other than corruption.
Despite the pain, I’m convinced that all was meant to be seedlings of of hope. Had the students not gathered courage to fight against injustice, we’d be far from achieving the political victory as we have. Ewha students also inspired the public with a new protest culture, peacefully standing arm in arm and singing K-pop songs to convey their message. They are truly the living legacy of Mary Scranton’s vision.
For the first time in Ewha’s history, a president has been elected through student votes. I hope this will mark the beginning of “the best of times” to come.
(May 27, 2017)