This is a story that needs a little background because as the story the background is equally important. I went to Oslo in 2010 to study a Master program at the Oslo University College (now Oslo Metropolitan University). Like any other European city, a lot of international students go to study in Oslo (and in Norway). Because of my inclination towards students politics, I started to take part in the activities of International Students’ Union of Norway and served as a leader in different capacities in the years to come. I met friends from all over the world, represented them at various platforms, organized and participated in campaigns for their rights and for a tuition-free education. My studies there and the involvement in the union gave me the chance to meet Dr. Gomez from Nicaragua.
We worked together along with other members from the union to make our university (and Norway) a better place for the international students. We ran film club, organized multicultural dinners, looked after hostel facilities and educational qualities. It became a close-knit, a kinship that we still carry. After completing their courses a majority of students decided to move to another country/ to their home countries, and I along with some other decided to stay there to finish my thesis in Oslo itself. Dr. Gomez went back to Nicaragua. Rianne and Malina to their home countries (mentioning Rianne and Malina is important- because they were an active part of our work and left us for another world some time ago. We keep them in our memories). Dr. Gomez has continuously fought for the rights of women in her country, by taking an active role in protests and campaigns. She has also been advocating universal as well as affordable health care, which is clearly reflected in writings.
In 2013 I went back to India, and Dr. Gomez went for another program at Hanyang University, in Seoul South Korea. Something happened there, which is better told in her own words:
“Not many people can say that they’re excited to begin a third Master degree, I was, over two years ago in 2016 when I was granted a scholarship to study in Seoul, South Korea. As a Nicaraguan medical doctor this was a challenge, not many people want to leave everything (job, family, home) to go to the other side of the world to study, I did because of many reasons, the most important one was to earn knowledge and experience in Asia in order to pursue a Ph.D. on a public health-related field. I was told and read many things about South Korea, among them was that professors were tough academically and that the program was extremely demanding, it seemed interesting to me because I love challenges and it was nothing new as I studied before a Master in Oslo, Norway which was to my view also very demanding of time and dedication. Little did I know that the challenges I would face were not going to be related to academics.
On our first day of the program along introductions, our main professor in Korea told us that we were no longer professionals but we were regarded as “humble stupid students”. The word stupid resonated and it was just the beginning of a series of demeaning treatment we would face individually and collectively. My classmates were mainly from African and Asian countries, none of them, except for me, had previously studied abroad and because of this and the Korean history of professors being tough they stayed quiet and endured. We were bullied, insulted, harassed and discriminated by this man over a period of sixteen months. One day, five months before concluding the program, he insulted me by making a sexual joke in class that ashamed and offended me like no other professor in my life and I decided I had enough.
Approximately three weeks before ending the program I filed a formal complaint to the University, the cooperation agency that sponsored our scholarship, my embassy and the human rights commission in Korea, I went all the way because after all, we were no kindergarten students as he used to tell us, we were government officials from 12 different countries and we deserved to be treated with respect and dignity as anyone else. Being academically demanding had nothing to do with using derogatory language and insulting people because of their skin color, origin, socio-economical background and how well they spoke English. There’s certainly no reason for being called stupid repeatedly as a way of teaching and let alone being the subject of sexual jokes like the ones he made, this was a professor at a prestigious university in Korea, a doctor with a Ph.D. that belittled his students, especially those that, like us, came from developing countries.
To my surprise I was not the first one complaining, in total we were six, some had done so years ago and nothing was done. The story is long, I realized he has a narcissistic personality, never accepts he made a mistake and he is always right, never did anything wrong either, typical disorder behavior. The harassment I faced worsened after my complaint, I asked for him to apologize and he did not, ever, he went to the extent of trying to make me fail the program and defamed me, some of my former classmates took his side for their own personal interests and I became the enemy because I spoke up. As a female medical doctor, I never thought something like this would ever happen to me, it did, but I fought back and even raised the issues about the #MeToo movement and basic human and women’s rights. I asked the university to suspend him permanently for the sake of future generations because I knew he was not going to change.
After nine months of replying emails and basically fighting for my rights and the rights of those students that complained before me and the ones to come, the disciplinary commission at the university made a decision that was disturbing and left me with more questions than answers. He was to be suspended for two months only, there would be limitations on teaching and medical practice, applying to grants (because of corruption on projects he handled with money from the Korean Government), salary reduction and the university was suspended from receiving students sponsored from the cooperation agency for four years. I was told this was the best outcome I could get from the university as they are known for protecting professors that commit many crimes including sexual (many local newspaper articles report about this) and monetary ones. Most professors are decent and respectful in Korea, something that should be admired; also, in no way this experience made me change my views about the Korean people or the country because of the behavior of a cynical man. I have the power of going through rough times, dusting off and keep going, this is no exception.”
In the Email from Prof. Han, in which he was supposed to basically apologize for his behavior but instead he decided to explain and justify. He wrote five pages long Email with a five-page attachment explaining his behaviour. For example, the attachment cites academic references to explain the words like “Stupid”:
” STUPID: According to several studies on medical education, what students feel about their “incompetence” to follow up with the high demand of medical school curriculum is referred to as students feeling “stupid” about themselves. The word “stupid” is not only used as everyday vocabulary but also used in academic papers.
As already described in Course Information (CI)1)KOICA master’s program is an intensive and demanding program where students must complete specific number of course units in a limited period. During the program orientation, I had explained that due to a various background of students attending this course, the differences exist in not only in students’ learning abilities but also in outcomes of their study as many different factors2) are involved in determining the study outcome. Because of this, I have mentioned numerous times that regardless of your previous position in your country, if the students have the heart and desire to learn, I will be more than welcome to share my time with them even in the weekends to improve their learning experiences. I told the students several times that I also come to the office even during the weekends to continue my studies because I also regard myself as a “stupid” student who still has much to study. In order to explain and deliver these types of messages, I used the word “stupid” to describe my own faults and stupidity.
As I previously mentioned, the word “stupid” is even used in academic papers to describe one’s feelings or situations, but I am also aware that the meaning of the word can be perceived differently, and I feel unfortunate to have caused such issue. “
And the term “MBA”: The term MBA is known as the acronym of Master of Business Administration, but it can also be used as an acronym for ‘Married but available.’ This term was mentioned during the course called “Healthcare organization management and practice” (Fall semester, 2016).
One of the main issues among healthcare professionals is career break in women, especially among the nurses. During my lecture, we compared the status of healthcare professionals in Korea and other developing countries and discussed about the concept of career break. I mentioned marriage and childrearing as the main reason for career break among nurses in Korea…” [It further adds some graphs and images to explain it]
There are similar explanations for terms like “Pig” and “Rural Chickens”.
The disciplinary committee could have simply given Prof. Han a forced retirement after the detailed inquiry but instead decided to go soft by reducing his payment and a short suspension. We have also read and looked into stories of researchers and professors of South Korea involved in harassment and misuse of money.
To many, the moral of the story may seem like a small victory, maybe it is; but we certainly thought that things would be easier and different in some parts of the world. On the other hand, this experience gives us the strength to continue our fight for equal rights and justice for all.
(Dr. Gomez is not the real name of my friend, but due to Political and security reasons, we have decided to use this name. She is now seeking political asylum in the United States, and I am currently based in Moscow, Russia. We have the Emails sent by Prof. Han and the Committee but due to their confidential nature and possible results for Dr. Gomez we decided to only present some parts of those Emails.)
Ashish Kumar Singh, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Science, NRU-HSE, Moscow, Russia