I came to IU from Korea as a foreign student in 1968. I wanted to attend IU to advance my studies in political science, after earning master’s degree in public administration at Yonsei University in Korea. En route to my destination in Bloomington, I spent one year at the University of the Philippines Graduate School of Public Administration and three months in Seattle in order to earn one semester’s worth of tuition by busing tables and making pizza.
In the last week of August of 1968, I landed at Bloomington. When I was registering for my first Fall semester, I had the chance to meet William J. Siffin, the faculty member who attracted me to IU due to his scholarship and leadership position in the Comparative Administration Group in the 1960s. His main concern was on “developing” developing nations. Alfred Diamant was another faculty member of IU political science department in the Comparative Administration Group. I was so happy to take Siffin’s seminar in the first semester. Professor Siffin made such an impression on me that I named my first son after him.
The Department of Government was blended into the Political Science Department when I arrived at Bloomington. For the first time, I learned about science of political science at Bloomington, which included basic statistics and computer courses. Political science 1 was a normative or traditional political science course oriented to political philosophy and Political Science 2 was a new behavioral or analytical political course for basic required political science courses. Alfred Diamant was my Political Science 1 teacher and Leroy Rieselbach was my Political Science 2 teacher. Professor Rieselbach was a distinguished scholar of Congressional Roll Call voting analysis. Young faculty John Gillespie was my computer teacher. I spent virtually everyday of one semester at the IU computer center with punching cards for computer-assisted data analysis. I was disappointed when the heavy volume of computer print-outs was not there for me. Often, there was one page print out. That meant something wrong in my punched cards dictating to produce coefficient correlations among multiple variables in my proposed research project. So under the circumstances, I had to investigate all the cards punched in order to find the reason. I was fortunate to have passed the basic required courses, but did so with some difficulty, as I was not well skilled in statistics and computers.
I was fortunate to meet Lynton Keith Caldwell who taught environmental policy and administration. We discussed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 in our seminar before it was legislated by the US Congress and signed by President Richard M. Nixon on the morning of January 1, 1970. For the first time, I learned of the relationship of man vs. nature, the eco-system and one Earth. As a nature-loving poet, I enjoyed the courses he taught. He was the founding father of environmental policy and administration in the academic field of public policy and administration. He was kind to guide me through a field of which I knew very little prior to my time at IU.
During my life at Bloomington, 1968-1972, I was elected as a foreign student representative to the IU Student Government, a body that was preoccupied with managing the relationship between the Town people and the Greek House students. Michael King was Vice President of the Student Government who represented the Town people. He was the publisher and editor of the underground students’ weekly. I contributed my poems and essays to his weekly newspaper. We shared a belief against the Vietnam War. He was sympathetic to my political writings against the South Korean government. In the fall of 1970, the Student Government sponsored my poetry-art ensemble at the Union Building for one month. AP and UPI produced articles on my poetry-art show. My political science teachers came to see the show aand encouraged me to continue my poetry as a political scientist.
In the 1972-73 academic year, I started my first teaching job at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to replace a faculty member who was on leave. In the interview process, I was asked whether I was sufficiently knowledgeable to teach an American Government course. The Vice President of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater questioned my ability, but two students representing the student body and the faculty members supported me well. This was my first teaching position in the United States. In the early 1970s, I could not return to my home country due to my political activities against the authoritarian Korean government ruled by former army general Park Chung-hee.
In late 1970s, I spent several years teaching at Old Dominion University in Virginia, but was eventually turned down for a tenure evaluation. I was suddenly confronted to high wall of tenure evaluation arbitrarily imposed by senior faculties who did not publish a single scholarly article. First of all, I had the highest student evaluations of my teaching performances, even though my colleagues pointed out my Korean accent. I had published several scholarly publications, constantly engaged in the grantmanship and professional services with the American Society of Public Administration, and contributed as an Op-Ed writer for local Tidewater Virginia newspapers.
I then left for Jackson State University and taught at Jackson, Mississippi for a couple of years. I moved to Washington as a National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration fellow. It was here, when I was just 40, where I experienced first-hand, the real world of bureaucracy at the Pentagon as an assistant for environmental quality in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1980-82. My major work was my essay, “Balancing Environment and the Nation’s Defense,” the first article on Defense and the Environment I published in Defense Magazine in 1983. I published my articles in the Washington Post and acquainted with the Post writers and staff.
Then, I was offered a teaching position at the University of the District of Columbia School of Public and Business Administration. I taught the master’s degree of program of public and business administration. During my life in Washington, I read my poems at the Library of Congress under the sponsorship of Poet Laureate Rita Dove in April 1994 and later in 2003, commemorating the centennial year of the Korean immigration to Hawaii sugar plantation. I had the honor of being the first Korean-American to do such a reading at the Library of Congress.
In 1996, I returned to Korea to take a position at the University of Seoul, motivated by personal reasons. My mother was ill from her old age. But I also had a desire to be able to teach Korean students in my homeland. My contributions to South Korea’s environmental policy and management and safety policy and disaster management must be remembered with my personal life with my mother who sacrificed her life for my education in the US. My research ranged from finding low-level radioactive waste disposal sites, a challenge in Korea due to its reliance on nuclear energy on a relatively small landmass, to establishing water resource management policy since Korea is a water-scarce nation with a long dry season and short flooding months.
After my mother passed away, I completed my teaching career in 2006. I was 65. I returned to my Virginia home. In 2010, I produced my memoir, Song of Myself: a Korean-American Life (Poetic Matrix). I am still active as a poet and writer, enjoying my life in the Virginia woods. I am a decent husband of my wife and humble father of my two children working in New York City.
I am grateful to the IU political science department who offered me the foundation of my American life. I miss my teachers very much.
--This is Dr. Choi’s speech at Indiana University, 2017. It may be his farewell speech to Indiana University, because he does not know when he makes another trip to Bloomington.
<By Dr. Yearn Hong Choi