The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

English-teaching position in Korea falls apart on alum

By Michael Schoelz

Going abroad, whether for a semester or for a post-baccalaureate, is bound to be a unbelievable learning and growing experience. But that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to enjoy it. Students who are returning to campus this semester can surely attest to the ups and downs of living in another country, but Jake “Stoney” McVeigh’s ’11 story of pursuing an English-in-Korea teaching program after graduation offers a glimpse of how unpredictable these trips can be.

“I oftentimes tell people it’s not hugely uncommon for someone to go on an international teaching or volunteer experience and not have it be what they were hoping for it to be,” explained Doug Cutchins, Director of Social Commitment. “… It’s all about the match. But I don’t think anyone could have been successful in [McVeigh’s] opportunity. It fell apart on him.”

Jake “Stoney” McVeigh ’11 and Pat Stuchlik ’11 stay “so fly” in Seole, Korea last fall. Contributed.

McVeigh’s story starts in place familiar to many seniors right now: vetting programs, weighing the challenges and opportunities posed by one program against those of another. An ’09 alum and member of the Grinnell football team recommended HandS Korea—an English teacher recruiting agency in South Korea to McVeigh. HandS Korea is a small recruiting agency, but they place 700-900 teachers a year and have been around for just under a decade. They found McVeigh a placement in a new Hagwan, a Korean private boarding school. After researching the school and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, McVeigh applied, interviewed and then signed a yearlong contract. He left the United States on Sept. 26 of last year. However, once he arrived and started working, he quickly noticed some strange things about the school in which he had been hired to teach.

“I arrived Sunday, observed class Monday and started teaching on Tuesday with the supervisor,” McVeigh said. “But there were things that were odd to me but I had nothing to compare it to. It was a new school and they told me, ‘Oh we had to move from our building and were trying to find a new spot, so we’re in this hotel temporarily.’ But it kind of made sense, because it’s a boarding school and people have to live on campus. Also, [I only taught] technically one [20 year-old, female] student that was paying tuition and my Boss’s son [who was 18].”

For six weeks, McVeigh lived in a hotel, teaching his two students and passing the time with them, his supervisor, and a Chinese national who was hired to teach Chinese.
“All of my meals were made by my supervisor,” he said. “It became very mundane and redundant; I felt very isolated.”

McVeigh rarely saw his boss, whose English name is James, the man who owned the school and had hired him. As the six weeks went on, James was increasingly absent from the hotel, and McVeigh would later find out that nobody knew James’ exact Korean name, and that the Hagwan he owned was actually in his son’s name. However, McVeigh too, spent some of these early weeks traveling. McVeigh met with other ’11 Grinnell graduates for a 10/10 celebration and saw a country profoundly different from the frozen fields here in the Midwest.

But back in the hotel, McVeigh knuckled under, hoping that the things he heard about his missing boss—that he was looking for more students and finding a new building—were true. But these rumors didn’t dissuade his growing realization that the relationship between his supervisor and his boss was increasingly tense; neither did it undo the biggest red flag—he wasn’t getting paid.

“My thinking was, as long as I get paid, I can stick this out,” McVeigh said. “If I get paid I’d be able to go out and travel and do what I want on the weekends. But I was trying to be very conservative with my money until I got paid. And I eventually ran out over the six weeks [waiting to get paid.]”

McVeigh was told that by Nov. 1, he would receive his first paycheck and be reimbursed for the cost of the plane ticket to Korea, which was in McVeigh’s contract. The hotel, too, was concerned about the school’s ability to pay. The date came and went and McVeigh had not even been asked for account information. McVeigh talked to his supervisor, whose English name is Jennifer, and despite her open feuding with James, she told him not to worry and to wait just a little longer. McVeigh also called the recruiting agency, HandS Korea.

“They called Jennifer because they had worked with Jennifer before at a different school, and one of the employees at HandS Korea trusted that she was being completely honest about the situation,” he said. “They told me to wait it out and give them a chance to get more students. But two days later, that’s kind of when everything happened.”

It was a Thursday morning, and McVeigh was in the middle of class with the student who was paying tuition, Stella.
“Jennifer runs in and starts yelling in Korean, ‘They’re leaving! They’re trying to run away!’ and tells me to stand in front of Daniel’s [James’ son] doorway so that he couldn’t leave,” McVeigh explained. “Because if they left, then there would be no way to find James. Well, I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I stood in between Jennifer and Daniel while they yelled at each other and I found out from Stella that they were cursing at each other and saying really bad things to each other.”

Once Jennifer ran out of steam yelling at Daniel, she left to go try to call James again, McVeigh took the time to go back to his room to try to contact HandS Korea and his parents, as well as pack his things. He went back out and the situation hadn’t changed, except now everyone seemed to be packing their things, too. The hotel manager joined the fray to ensure that someone would pay for the six weeks of rooms, and he called the police. McVeigh listened to the harried Korean exchange. Although he didn’t initially understand many of the details, the emotions and implications were clear.

The police, Jennifer and Daniel all left with McVeigh and Stella, the Chinese teacher. The hotel manager and staff were left to piece together their different perspectives on just what had happened over the last six weeks in each of their lives.

“[The hotel manager] was kicking us out but was concerned for myself and the Chinese teacher because he knew that we didn’t have anywhere to go,” McVeigh said. “I was lucky enough to have [HandS Korea]; there was little more that I could’ve expected. I was grateful that I had someone to call.”

As soon as McVeigh relayed the events of that morning to HandS Korea, they sent a car to pick him up and get him out. The next day, they went through all the legal procedures to see what McVeigh’s legal options were. Ultimately, due to his already significant monetary loss, the time it would take to move through the legal proceedings, and the unlikelihood that James would be able to pay, McVeigh chose not to pursue a lawsuit against James in the courts. He also chose not to take a position in another HandS Korea school, one of the best in Korea and with several extra perks (like his first months salary in advance) to make up for the catastrophic placement.

“They were trying to make it as convenient for me as possible,” McVeigh explained. “All that is nice, but I just didn’t feel happy. What it boiled down to was, I wasn’t happy and to get to a place where I was stable and happy, I needed to be back home.”

Cutchins agrees with McVeigh that HandS Korea acted admirably in response. He points out that the problem for both McVeigh and programs like HandS Korea is that sometimes all it takes is bad luck to ruin their best-laid plans.
“You can’t cover all of your bases,” Cutchins said. “You have to go forth on trust and sometimes, like in this case, it doesn’t work out, and that’s really unfortunate. When someone is going into an [abroad position] and red flags go up, you need to start asking questions immediately.”

International experiences are supposed to be tough, which is why they are exciting and have the propensity for growth. But growth is rarely emotionally—and even physically—painless. When vetting and applying to programs, a critical examination of both the program and oneself is necessary to ensure that together, your goals align. Cutchins suggests a degree of stoicism when dealing with the aches and stresses of becoming the person you want to be.

“I make a difference between challenges and problems,” Cutchins said. “Challenges are things that we know exist and are hard, and there’s nothing that we can do about them, and you signed up not despite these but because of these. With challenges, I encourage students all the time to find a person who is doing this right now and ask them what it’s like, … how do you cope and why it’s worthwhile anyway. Then there are problems. Problems are changeable and should be changed.”

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether a situation is a challenge or a problem, but once something is identified as a problem it is imperative to be proactive about it. Cutchins offers a few pieces of advice to keep in mind if you think you are encountering more problems than challenges.

“Ask questions not just to the people that you’re working with, but call people back at home,” Cutchins said. “Call a parent, call me, call Mark Peltz at the [Career Development Office]. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to explain rationally and calmly and not hyperbolically why something is a problem and what you would like to see done about it and work cooperatively towards that goal.”

Despite the trauma and the material loss of resources, time and energy, McVeigh still believed he gained invaluable experience dealing with an impossible situation.

“I still think of it as a learning experience with a lot of positive things that happened,” McVeigh said. “It was a once in a lifetime kind of thing, but it was also traumatic and something that is difficult for me to navigate still.”

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