My travel partner and I, admissions officers from Yale and Yale-NUS, respectively, were at dinner in a Korean home. And not just any home: one that two years ago, when the family’s oldest child matriculated at Yale, appreciated.
“As in, the childhood home of an Ivy League student is… lucky? Or prestigious?” I needed to clarify.
“Lucky – auspicious,” the Mom said. “Couples with young children look for homes with the right energy.”
Chinese and Korean societies are often called “collectivist”. This stems, in part, from Confucius’ influence and his five primary relationships, or the Five Bonds. Essentially, the interdependence of all people, particularly relatives, is a cornerstone of Confucian societies, of which many argue Korea, not China, is the premier example.
Korean collectivism spills into pungsu-jiri, the Korean term for feng shui, and qi. Geomancy, the auspicious placement of buildings and objects in space in relation to natural elements, underpins feng shui. Whether the children of a home’s previous occupants went to an Ivy League school has nothing to do with geomancy. And yet, as far as I can tell, the Korean collectivist spirit has spilled into the concept of qi, whereby a home’s occupants are connected to its previous ones and may inherit their positive energy and legacy of academic success. I use “their” in the preceding sentence intentionally: in Korea, it’s not just the child’s academic success, but the parents’, too.
The Korean drive to gain admission to America’s most selective colleges and universities is both humbling and extreme. Humbling, I think, that Koreans, with a robust economy and strong universities of their own, would still so intensely desire American higher education. But extreme, too, in the culture that it’s spawned: afterschool cram academies that assign more homework than proper schools, private admissions counselors who charge tens of thousands of dollars to “coach” privileged Korean students into the Ivy League (it doesn’t work), SAT prep with newly-minted Ivy grads at 100+ dollars/hour. It’s a toxic culture that leaves 95% of families deeply disappointed with the college admissions process.
What’s needed is a perspective shift. To many Korean parents, there are exactly 10 universities in the US – MIT, Stanford, and the Ivies. At the same time that I advocate for Yale-NUS and, by extension, for Yale, it is incumbent on me to highlight the values of a liberal arts education as it can be found at many dozens of American institutions. It’s not the institution per se or its name that counts, but its educational philosophy and ability to deliver a high quality experience. And by that measure, Yale-NUS College has the makings of a truly great school.