Foreign Male Students are at Ewha Women’s University
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Foreign Male Students are at Ewha Women’s University

This article from a recent issue of the Herald Kyeongjae was one of the most-viewed on Naver a couple of weeks ago, and comes here via reader request.

This is the representative women-only area in the Republic of Korea. There are male students openly attending class at Ehwa Women’s University. They are not the male students once teased as “dance accessories”. They are foreign male students visiting Ehwa for exchange or summer programs.

Making up over 30% of all foreign international students, they receive student visas for periods from one month to one year and live on the campus as “Ehwa students”. They enter the library and lecture rooms and freely use the school cafeteria. How do these foreign male students appear to the university and the female students?

We met with four male students — German Martin, Korean-American Andrew, Hong Konger Samuel, and Japanese Shinjiro — who are living as female students and asked them about the the university and the female students.

“When I first met the Korean women students who get themselves all dressed up and ready for classes at exactly 9 am, I was really impressed.”

Samuel, the Hong Kong-born Chinese student who has come to study business administration, was impressed by the diligence of the female students. They were completely different from the female students in Hong Kong, who slide into class in the morning without having washed up, their faces pulled back by tight ponytails.

“They’re only around other women students but they wear makeup anyway. It’s like they are competing to be the most beautiful.”

There are also things which the foreign male students cannot understand so easily. One is why the women wear high heels while climbing the famously hilly Ewha campus. At the school Andrew attends in the United States, it is nearly impossible to find women students in heels.

They also had some negative things to say about the female students. Martin Berber, the blue-eyed German student, said, “I can’t understand some of the students who put so much work into their makeup, then come into class, sit down and spend the whole class bored and uninterested in it, then when it finishes they jump up, grab their handbag and get out.”

“It’s also weird that they never ask any questions in class. The only person who asks questions in good English is me,” he added.

When you hear those stories, you may they think they don’t look so favorably on Korean women university students. But that is the opposite of the truth. Whether in one short month, or over one year, they had the experience of being “women university students” and came to love it.

Hong Kong-born Samuel stressed that all the Korean women students were friendly and helpful. He was surprised that though he thought they cared more about their appearance than anything else, they actually are much more active than he expected in schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Samuel said, “I was really surprised that the one female student who came to class every day in full makeup received the highest grade in the class.”

Martin also gave high marks to the hard work of Korean female students. He said, “most of the female students I’ve met in Korea speak two foreign languages. And some of them were doing a double major or going to a hagwon to learn a third. I was really surprised.”

This determined aspect of Korean female students, who live busily and compete for jobs and grades, was simultaneously their weakest and strongest point.

Of course as male students they take considerable interest in the physical appearances of the Korean women students. Some of them have heard of the 된장녀 epithet attached to female college students who cultivate their physical appearances. But, they say, they don’t agree with the description.

Samuel, born in Hong Kong where all the world’s races mix, said, “working hard to take care of themselves is their self-pattern. Frankly, it seems that Korean women students have to look good no matter where they go.” He meant that the ability to take care of one’s appearance while maintaining academic ability is the best way.

Women’s universities also exist overseas. But for foreigners, a huge women’s university like Ewha is unknown.

“When I first came as an exchange student my friends were really jealous,” said Andrew, said he received many envious text messages from his Korean-American friends.

But, he said, after living at the school he sees nothing special about a women’s university.

Andrew complained only of the lack of men’s bathrooms. “The only difference is that most of the buildings where we have classes don’t have men’s bathrooms. The dorm has a men’s bathroom but the other buildings don’t have bathrooms for male students. I had to use the teachers’ bathrooms.” They all said that through Ehwa they have now experienced the opposite of co-education.

In fact, the number of women’s universities around the world has been decreasing. American women’s universities have been transforming into co-ed institutions over the past 30 years, so that just 25% are still women-only. In the 1990s Mills College was to become co-ed but a student boycott calling for the maintenance of women’s only education got the decision reversed.

“In America there are some women’s universities such as Smith College and Wellesly College, where Secretary of State Hillary is from. They’re famous schools that students are very proud to attend. And I know that Ehwa is one of the top-noted schools in Korea. So I don’t really know why there is controversy over women’s universities. Everybody has their own perspective. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an educational environment that’s only for women.”

Wrapping up, we asked them what they would like Korean women college students to do. They gave some interesting answers. “I’d like if they didn’t wear so much makeup. Frankly speaking, their faces are pretty enough even without makeup. When you go out, just wear your natural face.”