Korean studies is playing an important role for Portland, Oregon, as its harbor is the largest entry point for Hyundai automobiles in the United States, said Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University.
“There is a need to have people that understand Korean culture and language, as Korea is an important economic partner for the city of Portland,” he said during an interview with The Korea Times at the Plaza Hotel in central Seoul, Aug. 9.
Although Koreans doing business with Portland are able to speak English, having Americans learn the language and culture of Korea will give them an enhanced understanding of their business partners, Wiewel said.
Portland State University has a Korean studies program, which was established in 1972 with an endowment by a Korean living in Oregon.
The program that teaches the Korean language for two-and-a-half years along with Korean history and culture now has a certain level of demand.
“When the Korean studies program was first established most of the students were second or third generation Korean-Americans, learning about their roots,” said the president. “But now those students make up about a third and the rest are Americans without Korean roots that have a genuine interest in Korea.”
Every year about 100 students take the Korean studies program. One main reason for the growing interest seems to be due to the popular Korean culture which is well-accepted by the students and exerting considerable influence.
“There are Korean popular culture organizations on campus in which students dance to K-pop,” said Wiewel. “Popular culture has powerful effects.”
With the growing demand and the need, the university now plans to create an official Korean studies department. This was in fact why Wiewel and a number of presidents of several universities around the world visited Korea from Aug. 6 to 11, invited by the Korea Foundation.
During the stay, the presidents visited universities and research institutes, meeting officials to discuss the prospects and plans of teaching Korean studies at their schools.
As for Portland State University, two important developments have been made so far in this field. First is the exchange agreement with the University of Ulsan to have faculty members and students visit each other’s schools for several weeks.
Wim Wiewel, president of
Portland State University
The other is that the presence of Korean students is growing. “There are 106 students from Korea pursuing undergraduate and graduate level degrees and 12 visiting faculty members at the school as of this year,” said Wiewel.
Although it’s not the Korean students that will be taking the Korean classes, having an increased student population from Korea would contribute to heightened awareness and interest in Korea, he said.
Wiewel hopes that there will be interest from Korean foundations, corporations, and individuals in supporting the establishment of a department.
There is currently one regular professor teaching Korean studies at the university with the others being non-permanent lecturers.
“If a department is established, we will hire more faculty members. And other faculty members teaching related courses can also teach in the Korean studies department,” said the president.
“Anyhow, Korea will only become more important in the future for Portland and the U.S., so I believe interest in Korea will continue to grow, fueling the founding of a Korean studies department in the university.”