University of Pittsburgh

Namgi Park (EDUC ’93G)

Educator of educators

Portrait of Namgi Park

Photo credit: Jeong Yi

At Pitt: Park earned a PhD in education policy with a focus on comparative education.

In South Korea: He built a dynamic career in teaching, researching, and writing; became the youngest president of Gwangju National University of Education; chaired one of the nation’s largest collaboratives of educators; and is an author credited with influencing progressive teacher reform and a change to the culture of education in Korea.

 

The little boy was leaving Gumsan, a town so rural in 1967 that it had no cars. That morning, he and his father, a rice farmer, walked an hour to the nearest bus stop where the 7-year-old boarded a bus alone. He carried a bag of fruit and boiled eggs to sustain him over the two-and-a-half-hour trek to the town of Gwangju, but the bus was so packed that there was no room to eat. He had to stand, pressed against the strangers traveling to make new lives in the city.

When Namgi Park arrived in Gwangju, he joined his 12-year-old brother. They were there to attend school—a privilege, but one that came at a cost.

It was a threadbare life. The boys shared a tiny, bare room in a boardinghouse where monthly rent was only $2 and the brothers had to warm themselves and cook by heating bricks of coal.

To rise up, Park determined that he would work hard and “make his life of nothing into something.” He studied day and night. Little outside of academics entered his world.

In his new city, the kindness of teachers—a few of them American Peace Corps volunteers—helped him endure the separation from his parents. They also planted the seed of an idea that one day he could come study in the United States. It was an improbable dream, but Park’s early success in a city school put before him possibilities that would have been unimaginable had he stayed on the rice farm. One day at a time, he stepped toward a different life.

When it became time for college, Park’s first plan was to become a lawyer, but he could not afford the expense of law school. Instead, he headed north, 160 miles, to Seoul National University (SNU), and he majored in education through a program that provided almost free tuition to those who qualified.

He fell in love with education and the chance to shape young minds and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at SNU. He took his first job doing research at the Korean Council for University Education. Park enjoyed the work, but the dream of going abroad planted by the Peace Corps volunteers nudged at him.

Then, in the summer of 1989, fortune favored him: a supervisor was unable to attend a conference in Washington, D.C., and tapped Park to attend. In the United States, he met up with a friend who was studying at the University of Pittsburgh. The friend invited Park to visit the campus and meet John Weidman, a professor in Pitt’s School of Education. Weidman, impressed with the young researcher, eventually offered him a research assistantship at Pitt.

A few months later, in the fall of 1989, Park arrived in Oakland. He was 29 and had nothing but two suitcases: One for clothes, the other for books. His wife and baby girl joined him six months later and he settled into what he calls “the paradise” of campus life.

He enjoyed the free-flowing intellectual discussion, the interaction with professors, and the surge of energy he felt being in bustling, cosmopolitan Oakland. It was where he was able to do what he knew how to do: study day and night.

Park ultimately earned a Pitt PhD in education policy with a focus on comparative education. His Pitt studies, he says, opened the doors to international friendships, stronger leadership skills, and an understanding of education systems across the world. He left Pennsylvania feeling empowered and deeply connected to Pitt. Three times after graduating, he returned to the University as a visiting scholar. He would even later collaborate with Weidman, one of his closest advisors, to coauthor a text on higher education in Korea.

Equipped with new ideas and analytical skills from Pitt, Park plowed a path that influenced and changed the South Korean education system. First, he built his own career: teaching, researching, and, eventually, becoming the youngest president of Gwangju National University of Education. He has lectured across South Korea and authored more than 400 articles. He also served as chair of the prominent University Presidents’ Group, a consortium that works with university leaders across South Korea. With this group, Park was able to broadly share his views of how to improve teaching in South Korea.

As a result of his advocacy, the South Korean government prohibited corporal punishment in schools, adjusted policies in university admissions, and pushed for reforms that focused on children’s abilities without regard to resources of the parents.

“You cannot change the education system through revolution,” he said. “It must be done through the heart and soul of individuals. To change the students, you have to change the teacher.”

The little boy who boarded the bus alone was now a national thought-leader, giving teachers the tools to put other South Korean children on the path to their highest aspirations.