South Korea

Location of South Korea

Map of South Korea


 

How I grew up - from a village in Korea to Virginia Tech


Early Village Life
     Born as the first child in my family, I spent my childhood in a small farm village in Milyang, South Korea. My parents tended rice fields and raised four children. Village life in the late 1950's in Korea was hard. There was not enough food, no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. Children had to help their parents with the farming. Whenever I found time, I enjoyed catching fish, insects, birds, and anything that moved. I was also fond of reading books, which were difficult to access. After finishing middle school in Milyang, I (alone at age 15) moved to Seoul to attend a renowned public high school.

High School Days in Seoul
     High school life in Seoul was quite different from village life. The big city was bustling from morning until night. Students were stylish, but they seemed indifferent. I suffered from the separation from my family and old friends that I left behind in the village. Due to the long distance and the tight academic schedule, I could only visit my hometown twice a year. I was deeply depressed for the first couple of months of the high school.
     Then, an idea occurred to me. It was to join the Physics Club, which was a special activity club organized and administered by the high school. Shortly after joining the club, I witnessed two juniors in the club assemble an AM radio with five vacuum tubes. After a couple of days, they finished assembling it, and we listened to the radio together. It was very impressive to me and motivated me to become an electrical engineer in the future. Several months later, I assembled short-wave receivers and transmitters (whose parts were from junk markets) for amateur radio, which has been my hobby ever since. Except for my senior year of high school, I devoted all my spare time and money to assembling radios. During my senior year, I had to prepare for the college entrance examination. School began at 7 AM and lasted until 5 PM. After school, I had a simple snack and returned to the school library to continue studying until the library closed at 11 PM. I came home exhausted, had a late dinner, and stayed up late for further study. There was no life outside of studying for seniors, and my senior year seemed to last forever.

College Life
     The only goal for studying from elementary to high school in South Korea was (and is) to pass the college entrance examination of a prestigious university. Therefore, college students did not have much incentive to study. I, as a student of Seoul National University, was not an exception. During my freshman year, I enjoyed liberation from the bondage of high school. I filled my time with socialization (such as playing cards and billiards, drinking, and dating) forbidden for high school students. The ecstasy of my freshman year resulted in a poor academic standing, which hurt my pride. For the rest of my college years I worked harder in all my courses to be on the honor roll.
     College campuses in Korea in the early 1970's were scenes of unrest abounding with student demonstrations for a democratic government. Campuses were frequently closed for a long time, and classes were boycotted by students. As a result, a college education at that time was very poor. One exciting experience for me during college was an encounter with computers, which were recently introduced in Korea. I loved programming and admired the power of computers.

Young Researcher with the Agency for Defense Development (ADD)
     After a brief stay with Hyundai Shipyard, followed by one year of military service, I joined the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) in December 1975. ADD was a government run research institution for military applications, and it was the most prestigious research institution in Korea. Laboratories were equipped with state-of-the-art instruments from top US makers, and the environment was very supportive to research. Money was no object within ADD!
     I loved life with ADD and the projects I was assigned. They were challenging and demanding, and I often stayed up late nights to experiment with my designs. I absorbed new knowledge like a sponge and gained hand-on experience in analog and digital circuit design. I studied basic books in related fields, but my knowledge (with only a BS degree) was too shallow for many technical problems. As time went by, I realized that higher education was essential to becoming successful within ADD. I decided to pursue graduate studies in the US.

Graduate Student and Marriage in Iowa
     In Fall 1979, I became a graduate student at the University of Iowa, which offered me much needed financial support. Course work at the University of Iowa was highly intensive compared with Korean universities. Fundamental concepts were explained clearly. Homework and projects were graded and returned to students. (This was a new experience for me.) The course work was hard for me due to my weak undergraduate background and the language barrier. I felt great achievement for an A grade in a course, which also gave me confidence in my studies.
     After three years in graduate school, I switched my major from control systems to computer engineering. It was a quick decision made during the summer of 1982. Computers were a totally new subject to me. I had to take many undergraduate computer courses while my peers were working on Ph.D. dissertation research. Although I never regretted my decision, it was a difficult period in my education. Four years after the switch (seven years into the graduate program) my struggle came to an end, and I defended my Ph.D. thesis in September 1986. During the summer break of my second year, I visited Korea and married.

Faculty of Virginia Tech
    As graduation neared, my wife and I had to make the difficult decision of whether to return to Korea or stay in the US. After the decision was made to stay, I looked for an academic position and joined Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Fall 1986.
     The first course that I taught was an introductory computer-engineering course with about 150 students. The classroom was a commercial movie theater (which showed movies at night) in downtown Blacksburg. I prepared for my lectures day and night, but managing such a large undergraduate class was a nightmare for a fresh new faculty member. Students in the backseats were coming in and going out all the time. Some students were eating popcorn while watching the lecture slides on the large movie screen. I was discouraged and uncertain about my career as a faculty member.
     Over time, as I settled down at Virginia Tech, I made progress in teaching and research. Students appreciated my well-organized class materials (and sense of humor), and I was awarded an NSF Research Initiation Award. I worked as hard as a graduate student, but I loved my job. The initial struggle was over, and I was tenured and promoted in 1992.
     Currently, I am a full professor with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. I am happy in the academic environment at Virginia Tech. I am enthusiastic about teaching and research. I encourage students to purse excellence in academics and higher education..