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Going to school is never too late for elderly Koreans

Church-run Hangil High School in Incheon Diocese has offered education to elderly Koreans since 1987

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: September 29, 2021 06:24 AM GMT

Updated: September 29, 2021 06:25 AM GMT

Going to school is never too late for elderly Koreans

A teacher takes class at Hangil High School. The school has been offering education to hundreds of illiterate elderly Koreans for decades. (Photo: Catholic Times of Korea)

“Where are the kidneys in our body? Write it down on the paper handed out to you,” the science teacher tells her students during a class at Hangil High School on a September evening.

This was one of the questions the five students had to answer properly as the class was coming to an end. It took some time for the students to turn in their answer sheets as they often struggle to memorize their lessons.

It is because the students are not children or adolescents but mostly elderly women. The oldest student, 82-year-old Cecilia Kim Bok-seon, joined the first grade this year.

“It is difficult physically because of my age, but with the support of my classmates and teachers, I am realizing my lifelong dream,” Cecilia said.

Cecilia, a Catholic, never went to school in her life and spent most of her life as a housewife. Her husband died last year, and this year she decided to join the school to get formal education.

The school experience has been delightful and learning mathematics gives her immense joy, she said. “Everything I do at the school is just fun and makes me happy.” 

English is one of the most difficult subjects, but I am learning little by little thanks to my hard-working teachers

Cecilia is one of 14 students in two grades at Hangil High School under the Diocese of Incheon. The school has 21 teachers and staff.

Yoon Su-tae, 72, a second-year student, does not adhere to any religion. 

"English is one of the most difficult subjects, but I am learning little by little thanks to my hard-working teachers," she said.

Yoon was born in a poor family, so she couldn’t continue her education after elementary school.

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At home, while having fun with her grandchildren, Yoon often felt she must learn new things in life before it was too late as the children made jokes about new English words they learned at school.

“If you want to see the rainbow, you must endure the rain,” she reminds herself. At the school, despite the difficulties in studies, she is learning to draw her own rainbow.       

Since 1987, the school has been providing education to elderly Koreans who didn’t have adequate opportunities to get formal education as children and adults but always held a passion for learning.

For five days a week, Monday to Friday, from 7-10pm, students attend classes on a variety of subjects including science and English.

Most teachers are volunteers — retired and incumbent school teachers who find great pleasure in teaching elderly students without any pay.

“I find this voluntary work as a teacher greatly rewarding. There is a pure joy in teaching students without pay. The eagerness of students to learn is really great and the class atmosphere is fantastic,” said Garino Yoo Jeong-yeol, deputy principal of Hangil High School.

“We also learn a lot from the students.”

The school and the students encourage rethinking the meaning of life, according to Clemens Yoon Hyun-sang, a retired teacher who teaches English to the elderly students.

“Seeing the elderly, who should enjoy life at home with their families, immersed in their studies in the evening triggers in me thoughts about the meaning of life,” he said.  

The school was the brainchild of Father Ho In-soo, then the parish priest of a Catholic church in Juan-dong, who sought to offer education to female workers employed in nearby Juan-dong Industrial Complex.

He set up a classroom in the basemen of the church and recruited students. In 1989, the school produced its first 10 graduates.

In the following decades, hundreds of students have graduated from the school, which arranges vacations, picnics and school trips like any formal school.

However, since the school is not an accredited institution, students need to pass graduation equivalency examinations known as GED.

I am also moved by the passion of elderly students who are eager to learn. We are trying in every possible way to support them

The school's alumni association is active and holds activities to maintain a strong relationship between senior and junior former students.  

The church’s education ministry might be small but remains significant in South Korea, which has one of world’s highest literacy rates for people aged over 15. According to official data, the literary rate stands at 97.9 percent.

However, the literacy rate is lower among the elderly. In 2017, the National Institute for Lifelong Education found that 67.7 percent of South Koreans aged 80 or older were unable to read or write.

The literacy rate was significantly lower among elderly women as South Korea has been a patriarchal society for centuries and many families discouraged girls from going to school even until the middle of the 20th century when the country’s economy started to boom thanks to rapid industrialization, according to a 2019 report from AFP news agency.

Father Kim Tae-heon, the principal of Hangil High School, hailed the teachers for carrying out the ministry passionately.

"I express sincere gratitude to the teachers who are serving purely as volunteers. I am also moved by the passion of elderly students who are eager to learn. We are trying in every possible way to support them,” Father Kim said.

The priest said that for years the school didn’t have a good learning environment as it is located in a humid basement without proper ventilation.

The municipal office and Incheon-based companies have offered financial support, allowing the school to renovate the floor, ceiling and wall in recent years. Fluorescent lamps have been replaced with LED lights, while dehumidifiers and air conditioners have also been installed.

Father Kim relishes the scene of elderly people having an early dinner, packing books in their bags and heading to the school for the joy of learning. “Here God’s love unfolds beautifully,” he said.

This article uses material from a report published by Catholic Times of Korea.

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