Educating a new generation of female leaders across Asia

August 2017- Founded in 2008, the Asian University for Women (AUW) is an independent, international university in Chittagong, Bangladesh seeking to educate a new generation of female leaders across Asia. The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Asian University for Women Support Foundation is Asia Society Korea’s Young Joon (YJ) Kim. Contributing writer Matthew Fennell caught up with YJ to discuss the work of AUW and to talk about the role Korea is playing in the organisation.

The Asian University for Women (AUW) was established in September 2006. What are some of the reasons you got involved with the organization?
Arguably, it is almost a cliché to say that education is transformative. Nevertheless, the fact remains that education is indeed transformative, or at least aspires to be so. I am a product of this educational transformation having grown up in South Korea in the 60’s and early 70’s and moving to the U.S with my family when I was 16. I was determined to absorb and learn as much as possible to make this move worthwhile. Having studied political science, economics, and philosophy as an undergraduate at Yale University, I went on to study law at Harvard Law School. I have always remembered that education is what made me who I am today, through not only the raw knowledge but more importantly through the values and ultimate purpose of the education. One of my favorite quotes is from Muhammad Ali, who said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.” I wasn’t seeking out AUW, but when I was presented, as the then President of the Harvard Club of Hong Kong, with an opportunity to help spread the message of AUW, I was struck by its unique mission to transform Asia and the Middle East by educating women. It sounded so compelling and convincing. My small initial contributions with AUW have snowballed over the years and here I am almost ten years later continuing to serve the organisation in whatever way possible.

What role does Korea play in helping and assisting AUW?
Unlike the U.S, the most philanthropic of countries, and other Asian countries such as Japan or Hong Kong, with a British cultural influence regarding charity, Korea doesn’t have the same history or cultural DNA for philanthropy, certainly not in the way it is carried out in other advanced countries. However, Korea values education very highly. Education is what made Korea the country it is in 2017, just as education is what made many Koreans who they are today. Korea is an increasingly important destination for higher education students wanting to further their education, including at the graduate level. Naturally, the Korean institutions that have been most responsive in cooperating with AUW, such as Ewha, Yonsei, and Sookmyung universities, have done so by way of granting exchange programs for current students and scholarships for graduate degree programs. We have had support from the Korea Export-Import Bank, which has been providing summer internships for AUW students since 2013 thanks to an MOU signed by AUW Chancellor and the president of Korea Eximbank. Another big supporter is the leading Korean garment manufacturer, Youngone Corp, best known for making North Face outdoor wear, which has been helping Bangladeshi garment workers pursue higher education at AUW by providing “Pathways for Promise” scholarships.

There have been ten current, or former, AUW students who have studied in Korea. What opportunities do they have in Korea once they have graduated?
For AUW graduates who have studied in Korea, many of them want early-career job opportunities in research, business, or other fields, while some want to continue studying for advanced degrees. It is interesting to observe that most AUW graduate students pursuing PhDs and masters degrees do so in the field of STEM in areas such as environmental science, nutritional science, computer science, and engineering. Other students want to study the social sciences, such as majoring in international relations.

Are there any plans to expand the program here in Korea in the future?
Ideally, we would be thrilled to have a home-grown AUW support group or foundation based in Korea, as we do in Japan, Hong Kong, the U.S., and the United Kingdom. Korea had developed in large part due to help from the outside world, at a time when it was struggling to stand on its own after the devastating Korean War. It is entirely appropriate for Korea to share the fruits of its own economic and political achievements by sharing its wealth and imparting its accumulated knowledge and know-how with its regional neighbors, many of whom aspire to become like Korea in many ways. For example, one AUW graduate student studying Environmental Science at Ewha is truly excited about the opportunities to share weather forecasting and climate management knowledge between the Korean Meteorological Agency and its counterpart in Bangladesh to improve the latter’s chronic struggle to predict and manage the aftermath of monsoons and the inevitable floods.

Finally, what advice would you give to countries who have a history of ignoring the potential of women?
It is no longer a cliché to repeat the well-established truth that, to ignore women’s education is to ignore the potential of more than half a country. Having seen how AUW students have been transformed in a short span of time to become leaders and changemakers, and having had such a compunding effect on those around them, I’m more convinced than ever that women’s education changes families, communities, and societies, much more than the education of the general population. It is truly the best form of investment one could make in the developing world.