Every Tuesday and Thursday, Cpt. Andrew Winters ends the long workday with a three-hour Korean-language class. On days when he debates skipping, he reminds himself who his teacher is.
Choungja Lee, a native of North Korea, grew up in a South Korean orphanage, where U.S. soldiers taught the children English. Today, she teaches Korean to the current generation of American soldiers stationed in South Korea.
“I have to go to class,” Winters said, citing Lee as his main motivation for continuing to learn Korean.
Lee, a professor through the University of Maryland Global Campus, commutes two hours each way for the evening class and offers free tutoring to her students on weekends. Her lively manner and eagerness to share about her upbringing make the class engaging, Winters said.
UMGC hosts the class at Camp Humphreys, the largest overseas U.S. Military installation in the world, located in western South Korea, according to the U.S. Army. Although Lee doesn’t have the opportunity to decorate the multipurpose classroom at the base’s education center, Winters said she adds her own flair, sometimes bringing in Korean ginseng candies to share with her students. Lee said this brings back memories of when U.S. soldiers shared snacks with her as a child.
Her pedagogical skills were honored last month when she was awarded the Stanley J. Drazek Teaching Excellence Award, UMGC’s highest honor. Lee, who has taught with UMGC since 1992, was one of nine faculty members worldwide to be awarded.
“It couldn’t be better,” she said of teaching at UMGC. “I like my job as a teacher. American soldiers — I am so happy that I can see them.”
Lee, 83, was born in Pyeonganbuk-do, a northwestern province of North Korea, and at a young age was taken to a South Korean orphanage with her younger brother. She remembers little except for the U.S. soldiers at Camp Page who helped provide her comfort.
For many years, Lee only had an elementary school education. After getting married, giving birth to her son and enrolling him in school, she grew tired of filling out forms asking for her highest level of education and writing the same answer.
“I made up my mind,” she said. “I will never, ever, never ever write my education background to be elementary school only.”
Lee completed her GED, commuting 75 miles daily to do so, on top of working several jobs. She then decided to attend university, for some years at the same time as her son. Lee earned her undergraduate degree in English language and literature and her masters degree in English education. She also conducted part of her education at Harvard University, all because she wanted to improve her English skills.
Having been a working student, Lee said she better understands where her students are coming from because the soldiers attend class after working.
She also teaches military spouses, like Shelsy Guerrero, who took the class in 2021. Guerrero moved to South Korea with her husband, a member of the Army, and was stationed there for two years. She remembers being nervous to take the class, then seeing how Lee creates a judgement-free classroom.
“She made it seem easy,” Guerrero said.
Winters said Lee does a great job of keeping the class engaging as the difficulty level increases and the class sizes decrease. He said in his current class of four students, Lee noticed the students needing a change of pace, so she moved them all to a table together and started up a conversation in Korean.
Lee also shows care for her students beyond their academic performance, students said.
Guerrero said she connected with Lee’s story because hers is similar: She moved to the U.S. from Mexico as a young child and knew the struggle of being brought to a new country. Guerrero said her Korean teacher inspired her to pursue her masters degree at New Haven University in Colorado, and the two still exchange emails.
After he learned Lee is Catholic, Winters asked if she wanted to attend his baptism, meaning she’d have to commute on a Saturday.
Winters said she agreed without hesitation.
“With everything that goes on in the world, it’s nice to have people who obviously care about other people,” Winters said. “The beautiful story about Ms. Lee is that genuine, caring soul that wants to make the world a better place, even though [there are] no obligations to do any of it.”
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