JuYeon Lee (VANK@ Seoul Global HS Club Leader and 1st President of VANK School Club Leaders Association)
Please give a brief introduction of yourself.
My name is Juyeon Lee and I am a seventeen year-old high school senior. I enjoy listening to music and singing. I do want to perform on stage one day even though I’m not very good at singing. I enjoy watching movies, dramas, and documentaries. I used to make my own videos when I was younger. Lately, I enjoy writing in my free time. Every time I get a new thought in my head, I jot them down as little thought notes. I have been keeping in touch with penpals since I was in seventh grade.
How did you get involved in VANK?
Until I was 14, I had never been abroad, never even been on a plane, due to personal restraints. One day, I randomly search “penpal” on the internet. I thought having a penpal was just for people who had been abroad or had relatives who lived abroad. I found a penpal site for people like me who had never been outside of their country so I went ahead and signed up.
At first, I emailed a bunch of different people but I soon realized that we weren’t true friends. After six years, I have three close penpal friends left: Enni from Finland, Cansu from Turkey, and Bella from Belgium. Because of the time difference, I used to secretly video chat them at 3am and get in so much trouble when I got caught. My mom was worried because wouldn’t go to bed. She would threaten me and try to get me to stop by hiding the letters and presents but I rebelled more and became more passionate thanks to my mom. When Bella and I contact each other we send super long weekly emails that are about five pages long. I realized that kind of communication is charming in its own way as well and we have really gotten to know each other.
For some of my penpals, we first started with email and now we communicate through snail mail. Email has a lot of advantages because it is faster than snail mail but I think snail mail is much more valuable because we can send physical gifts and snacks that share our different cultures. One time, Cansu sent Turkish Delight to my school and I got to share it with my friends. I don’t know why but I’m unable to throw away any of the wrapping paper or snack packaging from my penpals so I’ve been collecting it all. It’s also really fun to be able to see my penpals’ different handwriting.
When I initially started exchanging emails with my penpals in sixth grade, I wanted to share information about Korea just as my penpals shared information about their own countries but I didn’t know how. I discovered VANK’s Gwanggaeto Dream Wings Project and wanted to receive the souvenir kit. The souvenir kit was free but I thought I had to become an official VANK member so I secretly sent 20 dollars to VANk to pay for the membership fee without telling my mom (haha).
My first real VANK experience was participating in the 2009 Dokdo Camp. I had been attending an academy and was given an assignment to write a paper about Dokdo. I attached the paper to my application for Dokdo Camp and was selected. The overall experience was very meaningful. I even met a girl there who went to Seoul Global High School and thanks to her, I am currently a student there as well.
What have you gained from your VANK experiences?
As I contacted my penpals, I realized that although I was Korean, I didn’t know much about my own country. Though I was patriotic, I did not know about the existence of numerous historical errors published about Korea in textbooks and academic resources. I learned about international perceptions of Korea and also felt that it was unfortunate that such a large portion of them had to do with North Korea. Even now, I don’t consider myself an expert but I have gained an overall confidence. When I began a VANK club at my school but I was very shy but I was pushed into situations that didn’t allow for me to be shy. I had to act as a representative and be brave so I slowly became more outgoing and active. Additionally, I began studying English because English is necessary for a lot of VANK activities. My English is still not great but it definitely has improved.
In 9th grade, I suddenly had the thought that I would like to start a VANK school club but I didn’t know where to even begin. One day, I heard that a friend of a friend was in the process of starting a cartoon club at school and I was shocked. So I thought, “why can’t I do the same?” I wanted to start a VANK school club because I wanted to share the great emotions and experiences that I felt through VANK activities with the other students at my school. I ran around my school and darted into every single teacher’s room in order to find a club advisor. When I got home, I created handmade recruitment posters. I interviewed all students who signed up to be members. Our club advisor had only heard of VANK, she didn’t actually know anything about the organization. The whole club depended on me and I had to the lead all weekly events. Every Friday night, I thought about what to do the next day. I made tons of powerpoints and prepared programs such as classroom exchange penpalling with classrooms in other countries. The results were great. We penpalled with schools in the U.S. and in Turkey. The 20-30 club members enjoyed that event the most. We also went on field trips to places like Changdeokgung palace and Kyungbok palace. I worked really hard and I will never forget the moment when I saw the name of our VANK club in our middle school newsletter.
Why are VANK school clubs important?
Most Korean teenagers don’t know much about Korea and they don’t know how important it is to be informed. VANK school clubs help students understand the value of Korea. Joining VANK on an individual level requires paying the membership fee and personal active effort. It can seem like a very scary large organization that is difficult to approach. School clubs allow for students to experience VANK on a close level, especially to those who didn’t previously know about VANK. VANK school clubs show that VANK is actually very approaching and welcoming.
Also, there are many campaigns or activities that can only be accomplished by VANK school clubs. For example, we collaborated with other schools and held Korean culture awareness events in Insadong. These are small-level campaigns that only school clubs can do carry out, before student enter college or the work force.
Why did you decide to establish VANK School Club Leaders Association?
When I started my VANK school club, I checked the main VANK website and counted over 100 school clubs. However, the website seemed very outdated and I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the statistics. I thought it would be a good idea to gather all the clubs scattered around Korea and collaborate on ideas and projects. Newer clubs could get advice and support from the veteran clubs. I put my thoughts into action by starting an internet café and contacting all the club leaders I knew. When we held the event, I was so proud to see something that had started from nothing. It was great to see so many scattered clubs become united as one and discover opportunities to improve and advance all together. A lot of school clubs disappear after one year but hopefully through the VANK school club leaders association, we can strengthen the network connection and provide each other with the necessary support. I hope to eventually create newletters for newbie leaders written by veteran leaders documenting their past struggles and successes.
Describe some of your short-term and long-term goals.
In regards to VANK, I want to continue to stay involved in college. In terms of my personal life, I don’t really know because I’m interested in everything. I think it’s both good and bad but I’m unable to really focus on one thing. My dreams and goals have changed many times. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a teacher, a scientist, a chef, and a writer. Even now, I have so many dreams that I can’t decide right now. I feel like there’s so much I still haven’t experienced in life. I don’t ever want to be so rash as to say I don’t want to do something without having tried it. Some things I’ve thought of are becoming a documentary producer or musical actress, working for Google, and starting an NGO for the underprivileged. I don’t have a set dream but who says I have to decide now? If I live to about eighty, I still have sixty years to go. I want to try everything. Hopefully I’ll study arts and technology, maybe media or political diplomacy. Most importantly, I really want to be able to travel and personally meet the penpal friends that I’ve been contacting for so long. I want to continue to meet people from all different backgrounds.
Sometimes I wonder, why should we think it’s important to share Korean culture? There are a lot of different cultures in the world. I can’t express the right answer and I still think about it often but I think it’s more than just understanding who we are and where we’re from. I believe there are positive effects from cultural awareness and exchange.
-VANK Story 2013-