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OSU's personal touch convinces Korean student to become a Cowboy

Friday, August 12, 2005

Byoungwoo Lee, a 2005 master's graduate from Oklahoma State University's environmental sciences program, chose the university from his pick of several Big East Conference schools because of his experience with a friendly and caring professor, Dr. Will Focht. 

A major in the South Korean Air Force, the 33-year-old Lee had a promising career, a beautiful wife, Soondong Han; two young sons, Hyuk, 4, and Heechang, 8; and his pick of several American universities, including George Mason, Ohio and Texas A&M. In the end, OSU’s academic programs, personal touch and a caring professor convinced him to become a “Cowboy for life.”

"After finding OSU's environmental sciences graduate program on the Web, I contacted Dr. Will Focht, the director through email," Lee said. "I remember being really impressed because, even with his busy schedule as an administrator, he took care of me like an old friend."

He said it was this family feeling that sold him on OSU.

"I got admitted to several other schools in the East, but after talking to Dr. Focht, I realized all the other schools paled in comparison," Lee said. “I felt wanted, and that felt good."

Feeling wanted was just one of the factors that drew him to OSU. Growing up in the urban South Korean city of Gangneung-si, Lee said OSU and Stillwater also offered him a more balanced lifestyle for himself and his family.

"I believed Stillwater was a place that would give me peace and energy to concentrate on my studies," he said.

Achieving balance and good grades takes work when juggling family and school. For Lee, it wasn’t a problem. Graduating with a 4.0 GPA, Lee was active in the Phi Kappa Phi honor society and served as treasurer for the Society of Environmental Scientists. During the summer of 2004, Lee fulfilled his internship requirements at DynCorp at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. While there, he worked as an environmental coordinator, developing an environmental management system. Lee said his time at Vance helped cultivate skills that will allow him to implement an EMS for the Korean military. His career goals include building EMS systems for Korean and U.S. military bases. Lee said Focht and another professor, Dr. Sarah Kimball, introduced him to DynCorp and helped him get his internship.

"It gave me a precious chance to understand EMS in the practical sense so I can adapt EMS to a real military base," Lee said. "I am still very thankful for their kindness and will not forget their warm hearts."

Before beginning his academic career, Lee had established himself as an officer in the South Korean military. After graduating from the Korean Air Force Academy in 1994, Lee served as a personnel officer until 1997, when he changed directions and became a special agent of the Defense Security Command. As a special agent, he supported the Korean military by facilitating the efficiency of its operations.

Like most international students, Lee has plenty of culture shock stories. Coming from a Confucian-based culture, Lee said adjusting to a few American customs took him a while.

"The relationship between professors and students was very strange for me at first. It looked like a relationship between friends," he said. "In my country, the relationship between a professor and student is very strict. Students would not step in the professor's shadow out of respect for their dignity. So yes, it certainly took me a while to adjust to these kinds of relationships."

Lee said his time in the military helped him adapt to American culture.

"When I first came to the United States, I spent time at the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation school at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. While there, I became accustomed to American culture and language," he said. “This experience was tremendously helpful because, as an international student, it is important for me to not only have academic knowledge but also be knowledgeable about the country I am studying in. Without this understanding, it would have been impossible for me to complete my studies."

As a military person, Lee said that academic opportunities can be limited because serving full time in the military tends to be isolating from the academic world. However, he recommends that those pursuing a similar path find an understanding advisor who will help bridge the gap between the two worlds.

"An advisor who understands the person's specific situation is essential for those transitioning from the military to the academic environment," Lee said.

According to Focht, a student with Lee's work ethic makes things easier for an advisor.

"He is perhaps the hardest working and most interesting student with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working with," Focht said. "I feel as if I learned just as much from him as he has from me."

Serving as an example of both military and academic success, Lee's future is bright.

"With the education and training I've received, I now have an abundance of opportunities that await me," he said. "Even though I am returning to South Korea, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Oklahoma State."

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