Celebrating a pillar of the Korean community

Kyungsook Kim rose from personal challenges to create one of the most successful Korean language programs in Canada


Kyungsook Kim will receive the Community Leader Award for her efforts establishing one of the most successful Korean language programs in Canada. (Photo: Supplied)

In 2007, Kyungsook Kim was struggling to make a new life as a single parent with two daughters. She decided to start a PhD in education and found a position as a research assistant in the Department of East Asian Studies.

That was the break that changed her life.

“I started to work with one professor, and after a year she suggested, ‘How about starting a Korean program here?’” says Kim.

The last time the department had tried that, the program failed to enrol enough students. But Kim agreed to give it a shot, launching one small section of a Korean language course in 2007. 

Today that program has the largest enrolment among those of its kind in Canada, with more than 600 students in 31 classes, ranging from beginner to advanced. It has also become a pillar of Edmonton’s Korean community of about 10,000, and the envy of programs in major centres, such as Toronto and Vancouver, with far larger Korean communities. 

To recognize her momentous achievement, the professor of East Asian studies has received the Community Leader Award at the University of Alberta’s 2024 Community Connections Awards.

Immersion in culture and community

You could say volunteering became the lifeblood of Kim’s success. She knew that learning a language is about far more than the mechanics of grammar and vocabulary; it’s also about immersion in a culture and community.

She set about forging that community connection first by volunteering wherever she could — in the church, in a language school, at cultural events for the Edmonton Korean Canadian Association

“Once they opened their hearts to me, they allowed our students to mingle with them and our students knew well how important that was for learning a language.”

Kim created a number of community-based programs to deepen that relationship, such as a co-op program in which students learning Korean would mentor Korean youth, helping out at a summer camp. The students also helped Korean seniors learn to use computers and smartphones.

A related exchange program provided English language instruction to Korean immigrants — first to new mothers, then to their husbands and other family members.

Kim created a network of volunteers on campus — more than 100 every year — to help with her program, which also sponsors a number of events including a cultural festival, a speech contest, a K-Pop festival and a conversation club.

If that weren’t enough, she and a team of instructors also wrote four textbooks called Discover Korean.

Kim also established a partnership between the Korean Consul General and the U of A’s Department of Asian Studies to secure funding.

“The Korean government was shocked that our growth was so ridiculous,” she says. “They wanted to know, ‘What is going on in Edmonton?’”

Looking back, Kim says none of this would have been possible without the support and protection she received when she needed it most.

“I was blessed by the Canadian government and the Canadian people,” she says. “I really want to return what I was given. Until I die, I really want to help people.”

The University of Alberta Community Connections Awards recognize the incredible contributions made by faculty, staff or students, who have dedicated their time, energy and resources to making our community a better place. We recognize people who work alone or in groups, in our communities near or far from campus. Kyungsook Kim will be honoured with her Community Leader Award during a public ceremony from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, May 13, at Edmonton City Hall. RSVP to attend.

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