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A group of Korean students with two U of M students.

University of Minnesota graduate students Jean McElvain (second from left) and Kelly Gage (third from right) with their visiting Korean student partners. The students are posing with a team project that explored modesty in the United States and Korean culture.

Students reflect two cultures

By Pauline Oo

Published on October 18, 2005

What do the American quilt and Korean jogakbo have in common?

Well, they're both made of geometrically shaped cloth pieces that are meticulously sewn together by hand--squares are common in the quilt, no particular shape rules in the jogakbo, which is traditionally used to wrap or cover items. They both hold special meaning to the people who create them and receive them as gifts; they've been around in their respective cultures for generations; and they both became the heart of project by a trio of students from University of Minnesota and Hong-Ik University in Seoul, Korea.

Megan Wannarka, a University of Minnesota junior, and her partners from Korea, Hyun Jung and Kyung-Suk Song, are part of a yearlong cultural interchange that began this spring between the U's Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel and Hong-Ik's textile art and fashion design department. "Emergence: Student Cultural Collaborations," which involves 22 other University and Korean students and nine projects, aims to foster the awareness of similarities and differences that can exist between seemingly unrelated countries.

The program is an example of the University enriching its international curriculum and increasing its prominence as a global university--both of which are part of the strategic plan to transform the U into one of the top three public universities in the world.

Early this month, the Hong-Ik students spent a week in the Twin Cities. It was the first face-to-face meeting with their University of Minnesota peers. Up until then, the students had corresponded through e-mail, as well as meeting with their respective teachers in their own countries.

"The students met [in class] once a week throughout the spring semester," says Marilyn DeLong, design professor and associate dean of the College of Human Ecology. "They communicated [electronically] as often as they needed to complete their projects and communicated [in the classroom via the Internet] several times as a group."

Through e-mails Wannarka, Jung, and Song decided that handicrafts-a common interest among them--would be the theme for their project. They brainstormed the possibilities, finally agreeing to compare a similar handicraft from both cultures. Jung and Sung would each create a 90 cm by 90 cm (about 3 feet) jogakbo, Wannarka would make a 90 cm by 90 cm quilt.

"We were very surprised how similar the designs came out," says Wannarka. "We didn't get to see the finished work until [the Korean students] arrived." But the students did exchange designs and photos of themselves working on their creations.

Modesty, recycling, landscapes, national flowers, war and peace, masks, child's play, and weddings were other themes or topics explored by the other student groups. The projects were on display on October 8-9 in McNeal Hall on the Twin cities campus in St. Paul; now they're featured on a rotating basis in a display case on the second floor (down the hall from the Goldstein Museum).

Fashion art: the teacher's work

The 13 Korean students who were able to travel to Minnesota under the "Emergence: Student Cultural Collaborations" project, did so with their teacher KeySook Geum. The Goldstein Museum of Design on the St. Paul campus is currently hosting an exhibit by Geum, "Mind over Matter, Body Under Art," through January 2006. To learn more, read "Art of mind and wire."

"Emergence: Student Cultural Collaborations" grew out of the 22-year relationship between DeLong and KeySook Geum, Hong-Ik director of textile art and fashion design. The women have coauthored papers, led research studies together, and traveled to each other's homelands several times to lecture, give keynote address, and attend international conferences.

"[Our] rich experiences have proved that such a cultural interchange yields long-lasting rewards," says DeLong, who served as Geum's advisor and mentor when the Korean professor arrived on the U's Twin Cities campus in 1988 as a post-doctoral visiting scholar. "[We] wanted to offer the same opportunity to current students in two universities."

Geum says the program allows the students "to learn from each other's point of view in the best possible way--through direct contact with a friend who has the same interests and concerns."

Although communication was difficult at times because of language barriers--all the Korean students had some knowledge of English (some more fluent speakers than others) and none of the U students knew Korean--Wannarka and Jung have hit it off as friends.

"I've been very blessed to have this experience in my undergraduate life," says Wannarka. Jung, who is a graduate student working on her Ph.D., agrees that the exchange has been fulfilling, especially in learning about the United States. "This is my first trip here," says Jung. "And I am learning a lot about Minnesota and the American culture."

The University of Minnesota students will travel to Korea next spring. The trip will include presentations of their group projects and visits to the Samsung Fashion Institute and the Korean National Museum.

For more information about the project, contact Marilyn DeLong

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