How South Korea’s grandmas are returning to school

How South Korea’s grandmas are returning to schoolHow South Korea’s grandmas are returning to school
via 일성여자중고등학교TV / YouTube
Last year, an 82-year-old woman made headlines as the oldest student to take South Korea’s notoriously difficult college entrance test. We know that she prepared diligently for it — by not missing a day of high school — but how did she actually pursue her education at such age?
Prioritizing education
South Korea has one of the world’s best education systems, and with an aging population, it comes as no surprise that the nation supports institutions that facilitate the education of senior citizens. Since the 1970s, a variety of groups — senior citizen associations, religious communities and private organizations — have reportedly begun providing learning opportunities for adults, and by the 2000s, the government had stepped up with comprehensive welfare packages that saw the rise of educational institutions catering to older members of the population.
  • Kim Jeong-ja, last year’s viral test-taker, attended Ilsung Women’s Middle and High School, one of the institutions that welcome women over 40 who did not complete their education earlier in life.
  • Established in 1952, Ilsung is the first institution of its kind in the country, with nearly 90% of its students aged in their 70s and 80s. It also has a notable success rate, with 100% of its graduates qualifying for university for 18 consecutive years.
  • Ilsung is reportedly among 42 similar institutions nationwide. Altogether, they offer free education to more than 6,600 students annually.

Second chances
Many of South Korea’s elderly women students missed out on education due to the socioeconomic conditions of post-war Korea, family responsibilities and gender biases. Schools such as Ilsung offer a second shot at getting their diploma.
  • Born under Japanese rule in 1941, Kim never had the chance to attend school as the Korean War broke out just five years later. She returned to school in 2018.
  • Speaking to the Korea Herald, Lee Bok-ja, 63, said she was admitted to high school after secretly taking the entrance exam some 47 years ago. But the high tuition fee forced her to forgo her studies and work instead to support her family. In 2021, her dream reignited, and Ilsung provided the space for her to realize it.
  • Kang Nae-gyeong, a Korean history teacher at Ilsung, praised the learning attitude of her students in an interview with the Straits Times. She noted their strong performance in subjects like Korean language and history, attributing it to their life experience, while acknowledging their challenges with English and mathematics. Nonetheless, she is moved by their sincerity and efforts, as evidenced by heartfelt, albeit imperfect, handwritten notes she receives from them.
Toward a brighter future
Kim, now 83, was among 239 high school students who graduated from Ilsung last month. Aside from offering older students a sense of personal fulfillment, similar schools respond to the nation’s aging population by helping enhance literacy and employability among them.
  • Kim decided to study social welfare at Sookmyung Women’s University, where her own granddaughter is an alumnus. She recalls her granddaughter boasting about her school as “the best” and telling her that she is now her junior.
  • When asked about what she looks forward to in her college life, Kim said she wants to meet “a new generation of students and get help with studying English,” the Korea JoongAng Daily noted.
  • Aside from educational and employment opportunities, South Korea has set up measures to help seniors with advances in technology. Last month, Seoul deployed over 140 digital guides at subway stations, supermarkets and parks to assist seniors with the use of digital devices, as per the Korea Times.
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