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Stephanie Kim: Research on Student Mobility Reveals Higher Ed Pathways Between U.S. and South Korea

By Joanie Harmon

Published by the MIT Press, SSCE alumna’s first book highlights her work on the constructed trajectories of students.

While a doctoral student at UCLA, Stephanie Kim (’14, Ph.D., Social Sciences and Comparative Education), spent time as a Fulbright Scholar at Yonsei University in South Korea. Her findings on international student mobility between universities in the United States and South Korea became the nucleus for her first book, “Constructing Student Mobility:  How Universities Recruit Students and Shape Pathways between Berkeley and Seoul,” published this past spring by the MIT Press

Kim’s research is focused on higher education reform, international students, and comparative higher education policy in the United States and countries in Asia. Her work appears in a number of journals, edited volumes, and policy venues, including Compare, Comparative Education, and the Asia Pacific Journal of Education. 

Kim is Associate Professor of the Practice in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, where she also directs the master's program in higher education administration. Previously, she served as Program Director for the Center for Korean Studies and as a Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley.  In addition, Kim has held fellowships with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and East-West Center. She currently serves as senior editor of the Journal of International Students. Kim achieved her M.S. in global affairs at New York University and her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature at the University of Michigan. 

What led you to writing, “Constructing Student Mobility:  How Universities Recruit Students and Shape Pathways between Berkeley and Seoul”?

It was a ten-year journey, starting with the research I was doing while at UCLA for my dissertation. My dissertation was about the paradoxical ways in which internationalization can be realized by keeping students from going abroad. I examined the experiences of Korean students who would have studied in the United States but instead enrolled at an international college within a Korean university. Since that time, I also conducted a research project about Korean students’ experiences at UC Berkeley. I put these complementary research projects in conversation with one another for the book.

How did your Fulbright contribute to the project?

While doing fieldwork for my dissertation, I was a Fulbright Scholar from 2011 to 2012 affiliated with Yonsei University, where I conducted an institutional ethnography of an international college that is essentially [an] American-style liberal arts college housed inside of a Korean university. It conducts all its classes in English. It recruits American faculty members who offer the English-taught classes to students. The original idea of the college was to attract international students to this university. But what ended up happening was that … it offered a domestic alternative for Korean students who might have gone to the United States but instead chose to pursue international education at home. 

Would you have seen the same student experience if there was a branch of a Korean university in the U.S.?

South Korea is typically a sending country of students, and the U.S. is typically a receiving [country]. So when Korean students go abroad to the U.S., they seek out an American higher education experience, not a Korean one. I think that's why this particular dynamic played out the way it did in the Korean university where I was affiliated, where Korean students could still get an American higher education experience while staying close to home. Later, when I was doing research about Korean students who study at UC Berkeley, I put these two pieces together: Korean students who go abroad to the U.S. and Korean students who decided not to go abroad because they can pursue an American higher education at home.

What makes a nation a sending nation, and what makes it a receiving nation?  

The strict definition is [that a] sending country has more students who go overseas than come from overseas. A receiving country, of course, is the opposite. More students come in from overseas than those who leave to study overseas. It has to do with various historical factors [of] U.S. universities dominating global rankings that then leads to many students choosing to study at universities in the U.S. over universities in their home countries. It's also connected to longer histories of English dominance and more focus on research and development within U.S. universities that contribute to their higher position in global rankings. 

Also, when Americans study abroad, it's usually through a temporary exchange program, like a year or a semester in France, for example. Very seldom does an American student pursue an entire university degree outside of the U.S. So more Korean students pursue their degree in the United States than do American students pursue their degree in South Korea. 

The interesting thing is that [South Korea has] been the third largest sender of students to the U.S. for about two decades. Of course, China and India send the most, but they also each have a population of 1.3 billion. Per capita, [South Korea] actually sends six times more students than India does and three times more students than China does, if you adjust [the numbers] for population. The cachet of the American university degree really resonates with Korean students more than any other students in the world.  

What disciplines or majors did you examine, and what level of degrees attained?

I was looking at undergraduate students specifically, not necessarily restricted to any specific major. The reason I focused on undergraduate students is because that is typically the population that universities look to for tuition revenue. At the graduate level and especially at the Ph.D. level, students often get funding from the university and are recruited as sources of talent, not necessarily as sources of revenue. So undergraduate students exemplify the university’s approach to international student recruitment as a revenue-generating endeavor. 

What do you hope is the main takeaway from the book?

The most important takeaway that I want readers to know is just how much agency universities wield over students—over the choices that students make, the pathways that they take, and the ways in which they end up studying at one university or another.  

Oftentimes, we hold this idea [of the] globetrotting international student who has all the choices in the world. In fact, these choices are created by the universities that have prioritized their presence for one reason or another, usually for profit and prestige. So, my book shows us that student  mobility is very much constructed by the universities that brought students there in the first place.

What attracted you to UCLA for your advanced degree?

I wanted to study comparative and international education, and UCLA’s program was renowned for that. I wanted to have an Asia focus, and a lot of the faculty certainly had that at the time. I worked with Val Rust and John Hawkins extensively [and] got a lot of support from the UCLA Asia Pacific Center, which is a Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center. They provide Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding to students, and that’s what supported my tuition and living expenses through a large chunk of my studies at UCLA. I also worked with Doug Kellner (UCLA emeritus professor of education) and Mariko Tamanoi in the [UCLA] anthropology department, who were both on my [dissertation] committee. They [really helped] me shape my ideas into the project that it became. Other faculty members whom I worked with at UCLA include Rob Rhoads and Namhee Lee. And of course, I really enjoyed the intellectual vibrancy of my fellow SSCE classmates, who have become close friends and colleagues.

Photo courtesy of Georgetown University