Economy worries Koreans in Md. Students struggle to pay tuition after S. Korea financial slide

Some schools offer help

But cultural barriers make it difficult to ask for assistance

December 22, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

At a time when most area college students are preoccupied with final exams, hundreds who have come here from South Korea are being distracted by a far more pressing concern: Can they still afford their education now that their country's economy has collapsed?

Such worries have intensified during the past few weeks, as South Korea's currency has dropped to less than half its former value against the dollar, and families back home have relayed increasingly bad news about incomes and bank accounts.

"I got a phone call from my father two weeks ago," said Jae-in Yi, a Towson University senior majoring in visual communications. "He said that his bank had closed, and he couldn't send money for the second semester."

Yi is hoping the university will allow him extra time to pay his bills -- $4,100 is due by Jan. 6 -- and he's scouting for a roommate to share the cost of his apartment.

Other friends among the approximately 70 members of Towson's Korean Student Association, he said, have given up hope, purchasing tickets home for the holidays with no plans to return.

Still others have either sold their cars, moved in with friends or begun scanning catalogs for less-expensive schools. Part-time jobs might help, too, but aren't always easy to come by because of restrictions on the hiring of foreign workers.

And virtually every one of them, Yi said, monitors South Korea's shaky fortunes almost hourly on the Internet.

"Every time you meet a Korean student," he said, "we all talk about the economic situation: 'What have you heard?' 'How is the currency doing today?' "

The scenes are similar at other area schools, whether at College Park or the Johns Hopkins University, students and administrators say. But perhaps no school feels the tremors as acutely as Baltimore's Peabody Institute, which is part of Hopkins. South Korean students make up about a sixth of Peabody's student body of 600 and would be sorely missed in both the classroom and the accounting office.

"They are a very important artistic as well as tuition source for us," said Peabody's director, Bob Sirota, who has met several times with other top administrators to discuss possible emergency assistance, including loans, extended payment schedules or selective reductions in tuition.

"We felt we had to meet right away to discuss this before the holidays," Sirota said. "We want to make it possible for them to weather this storm without having to leave the school."

Only six of Peabody's South Korean students have inquired about paying their tuition bills late, he said, "but many more are concerned about it."

That reflects another aspect of the problem for local schools. Cultural differences, accentuated by a more acute sense of shame or embarrassment, seem to be making some students reluctant to seek help.

That, in turn, may be causing some administrators to underestimate the scope of the problem.

"There is a cultural barrier," said Shirley Essary, an American parent who took matters into her hands on behalf of her daughter Kimberly's South Korean friend at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore.

The student, whose mother faithfully sent $40,000 from South Korea for annual expenses in previous years, recently heard from home that no money would be coming for next semester. When Essary heard that and also that the student was too ashamed to ask school officials for help, she sent a three-page fax to school administrators outlining the student's predicament.

"I'm willing to provide her lodging and food (and a summer job) if that will make a difference in her being able to complete her Law School studies at your University," Essary wrote. "This should save her mother approximately $15,000 per year."

Her actions got a quick answer from school officials, who set up meetings for the student to see what might be done. But the student seemed reluctant to attend, Essary said. She also shied away from a newspaper interview, after a phone conversation with her mother convinced her that the ensuing embarrassment might result in South Korea revoking her visa.

Apparently, Essary said, the student's mother hopes to raise the necessary money by selling a building she owns. But hardly anyone is buying during the current jitters, while people hang on LTC to what they have amid the collapse of some of the nation's largest banks and industries.

"It seems as though every day they were looking for better news, and of course they were only hearing worse news," said Nicholas Arrindell, director of International Student and Scholar Services at Hopkins.

Even if the economy soon rights itself, schools and students might feel the effects into next year. Some administrators report that prospective students are now saying they will withdraw their applications.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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