Myung-Sook Cho

Ashoka Fellow
South Korea
Fellow Since 2015


This profile was prepared when Myung-Sook Cho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.
The New Idea
In addition to the mental burden of transiting to a new society, many youth refugees from North Korea find themselves struggling with PTSD -- developed firstly in North Korea and later during the escape. To cater to unique educational and mental health care needs of North Korean refugee youths, Myung Sook designed a new school that strikes a balance between the mental health, social readjustment and academic functions of education. Under the existing, state-led support system, refugee youths are encouraged to enroll in ordinary public schools, and even the "misfits" who have hard time keeping up with the studies and fitting into the culture are usually advised to take the GED exam to quickly obtain educational credentials. Either way, the emphasis goes on efficient assimilation into mainstream society, and most Korean policymakers assume that the best way to ensure acculturation would be through academic achievement. Myung Sook, on the other hand, believes that everyone must be entitled to be educated in such ways that are best tailored to their needs and circumstances. Accordingly, Myung Sook seeks to restore a sense of wholeness to her students and their families. At Dawn School founded by Myung Sook, students overcome trauma and recover human dignity -- something that had been all but destroyed and lost under the totalitarian rule and during the escape. Dawn School thus aims at raising resilient individuals and responsible citizens, who are ready to build a bountiful, meaningful life for themselves, and eager to make meaningful contributions to the community.
Rather than pushing refugee students to fit into existing norms, Myung Sook chose to work at students' convenience, and designed a new school system that accommodates every possible need of a refugee student. Dawn School serves as a one-stop platform that offers formal education, mental health support, and social immersion programs all at once. Noteworthy is the fact that Dawn School became the first state-accredited alternative school for North Korean youths (Under South Korean law, only state-accredited schools may issue official diplomas -- students attending "unofficial" schools must take the GED exam to be acknowledged as high school graduates, regardless of their school attendance or performance.). This breakthrough liberates students from the burden of exam preparation and encourages them to partake in various non-academic programs to promote mental health and social readjustment. To take care of mental health, Dawn School operates a separate therapy space monitored by psychiatric specialists, so that the students do not have to spend extra time and resource to visit clinics. As for the social inclusion, instead of opting for rural settings to save costs as most alternative schools do, Myung Sook recognized the importance of situating her students right at the center of busy urban life, so that everyday school run can double up as immersive social studies lessons to assist their cultural readjustment. Above all, Myung Sook makes sure her students are surrounded with an extensive support network of instructors and volunteers. This support team work together to help students overcome debilitating trauma and grow into empathetic young changemakers.
Eventually, Myung Sook aims to pave the way for the Korean public education system to shed its one-size-fits-all homogeneity, and embrace the divergent needs of emergent minority groups. Ultimately, she seeks to upgrade the flexibility and openness of Korean society, to help them cope with demographic shifts -- most notably the recent surge in immigration -- with competence and resilience. Myung Sook urges key educational and administrative stakeholders to acknowledge the important roles played by alternative educational institutions serving minority groups like North Korean youths, immigrant students, and public school drop-outs. Thanks to her efforts, the government did undertake systemic reforms to make it easier for small independent schools to obtain suitable financial assistance and state accreditation, as such schools are often best equipped with professional expertise to deal with those minority students effectively. Ultimately, Myung Sook hopes to create flexible, open cultural and systemic foundation, to enable Korean society to embrace minorities and immigrants without conflict and confusion.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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