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[LLG] Four women's inspiring journeys back to school

At an age when many are enjoying retirement, four women go back to school, proving it's never too late to learn

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : March 6, 2024 - 15:23

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Clockwise from bottom right: Lee Bok-ja, Kim Jeong-ja, Sung Ok-ja and Yoo Ae-ran pose for a photograph in their classroom at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Clockwise from bottom right: Lee Bok-ja, Kim Jeong-ja, Sung Ok-ja and Yoo Ae-ran pose for a photograph in their classroom at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Lee Bok-ja vividly recalls the day, 47 years ago, when she learned that she had been admitted to high school, having secretly taking and passing the entrance exam.

She remembers the tuition fee: 23,520 won, a sum she couldn't bear to ask her ailing father for. This amount was worth nearly half the monthly salary of a government employee of the lowest rank at that time.

Lee never went to high school, working instead to earn money, often as a cleaner. But in her dreams, she would sometimes see herself in a high school uniform.

In 2021, at the age of 61, Lee's desire for learning and studying reignited. She entered Ilsung Women's Middle and High School, an educational institution established to support women like her.

She took classes in the morning and did cleaning work in the afternoon, but was awarded a scholarship every year based on her grades during her two years studying there. Out of roughly 500 students enrolled in high school at Ilsung Women's, only about 20 are selected to receive such scholarships.

She used her three-hour round-trip commute on the bus and subway to study. In November last year, she took the annual college entrance exam, the Suneung, and got admitted to the social welfare department at Sogang University in Seoul.

“It feels like I am dreaming,” said Lee, now 63, after graduating last week from Ilsung Women's.

Kim Jeong-ja (bottom right, clockwise), Lee Bok-ja, Yoo Ae-ran and Sung Ok-ja pose for a photograph at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Kim Jeong-ja (bottom right, clockwise), Lee Bok-ja, Yoo Ae-ran and Sung Ok-ja pose for a photograph at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

School for late learners

At Ilsung Women’s Middle and High, Lee's story is not so unique.

In the 1960s and '70s, when poverty was widespread in Korea, many daughters were denied educational opportunities, expected instead to contribute to their family’s income at the earliest opportunity.

Today in Korea, almost 80 percent of female high school graduates go on to pursue tertiary education, a rate slightly -- but persistently, since 2000 -- higher than that of their male counterparts. But in the 1970s, only 56.5 percent of women went on to middle school.

“Students at our school are in their 50s to 80s -- those who could not continue education in the past due to being women, poverty or other reasons,” Kang Rae-gyung, a teacher at Ilsung Women's told The Korea Herald.

“Here, their passion for learning is just as high as that of younger students, and they are more diligent than anyone else.”

On one sunny day in January at Ilsung Women’s, students poured out in droves after finishing their morning classes. The scene of them chattering as they came out was no different from that of any girls’ secondary school. One student confessed to having headaches from math while another said Korean was their easiest subject. Another student handed an orange to a teacher who was standing at the school gate.

Ilsung Women's was founded in 1952 as a night school and became an accredited school in 2000 for women who have completed elementary school or the equivalent in Korea or abroad. It offers two years of study each for middle and high school. It had around 1,000 non-traditional female students as of February.

On Feb. 28, 239 of Ilsung's high school students graduated. The Korea Herald met with four of them, including Lee Bok-ja.

Kim Jeong-ja (from left), Lee Bok-ja, Sung Ok-ja and Yoo Ae-ran pose for a photograph in their classroom at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Kim Jeong-ja (from left), Lee Bok-ja, Sung Ok-ja and Yoo Ae-ran pose for a photograph in their classroom at Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School on Feb. 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Living every day with no regrets

Kim Jeong-ja, 61, was born in a mountainous area of Gangwon Province.

When she finished elementary school, her parents sent her to work with a Seoul family as their live-in housekeeper. The family had two boys attending middle and high school. She felt intense jealousy toward them and often cried in the hills behind the house. She earned 1,050 won per month, which she sent nearly all of to her family back home.

All her life, she lived diligently, working at restaurants dishwashing, cooking and serving.

The decision to pursue education again came from a moment of deep embarrassment.

One day, she was supposed to meet with friends "in front of a Starbucks." However, unable to read English, she went to wait for them in front of a cinema. After some time, her friends found her and asked why she had been waiting at the wrong place. Ashamed to admit to her friends -- who had all completed high school, with some having gone to college -- that she could not read the English alphabet, she chose to distance herself from them.

Over the last four years at Ilsung, while learning middle and high school curricula, she studied English particularly hard. “I can now read 'Hollys,' 'Mega Coffee' and 'Starbucks,'” she said, beaming. Kim has also reconnected with her old friends, who encouraged her in her studies.

Sung Ok-ja, 72, came to Seoul at the age of 14 to earn money. She started working at a dressmaking shop in Myeong-dong, where she learned how to use a sewing machine and the basics of tailoring. She dedicated over 50 years of her life to the fashion industry before retiring at 67.

After retirement, she traveled, tended to her garden and enjoyed quality time with her grandchildren. Yet, she experienced a persistent sense of emptiness and lack of fulfillment.

“One day in late autumn, I was watching the sunset, and I felt depressed and empty as if I needed to do something,” she recounted. “Suddenly, the idea of attending school crossed my mind.”

From her home in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province, her commute to the school took a total of five hours, round trip. But she never thought of quitting, nor did she find the commute difficult.

School taught her many things and offered her a variety of experiences that she truly enjoyed, from learning Chinese characters to participating in an English pop song contest.

“The world is vast and there are many challenges to take on,” she said. “After I started studying, my depression and thoughts of emptiness never came back.”

When Yoo Ae-ran, 63, enrolled in middle school at IIsung, she had just completed her treatment for stage-three cancer.

While in the hospital, she had a conversation one evening with an elderly woman with whom she was sharing her room. The next morning, the woman did not wake up.

"(After she passed away) I went to the bathroom we shared and saw a piece of toilet paper lying on the floor. I thought that torn piece of paper was like me and the elderly lady," she said. "Life is fleeting like that. It made me reflect on how I should live the remainder of my life."

(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

She decided to do something about one of the lifelong regrets still lingering in her heart. She thought to herself, "If I fall like toilet paper while trying, then so be it. There’s nothing else I can do.'"

Once Yoo made her decision, she pursued her cancer treatment with diligence. Throughout her 70-day hospitalization, she underwent 35 sessions of radiation therapy. But she still managed to climb all of the hospital's stairs from the fourth basement floor to the 10th floor every day.

Despite strong opposition from both her family and her doctor, she enrolled at Ilsung Women’s after her hospitalization.

"My favorite subject is math. I feel excited after solving a problem that comes with a clear and definite answer," she said. "That is why I like math teacher Kim Eun-kyung the most."

One day, she asked the teacher if it would be alright to text her whenever she encountered an unsolvable problem. The teacher said, "Anytime." Since then, whenever Yoon has found herself unable to solve a problem after trying repeatedly, she would take notes and send a photograph of them to her teacher. Kim would then either solve it for her or promise to explain the problem during the next class. She always kept her promise by addressing such questions first thing in class.

"Ever since I started attending school, I often find myself looking up at the sky. I don’t know why, but I feel more confident,” she said. “Although the college admissions process intimidates me, I am determined to give it a try. Because giving up after you’ve tried is different than giving up without even attempting.”

Standing for living, loving and growing, LLG goes beyond the realm of daily news, exploring the vibrant tapestry of modern life, as told by real people. -- Ed.