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Posted 06/13/03, by Kathleen McDermott '04
Mentoring program exposes Korean children to their native culture
When Wendy and Bob Wells of Thetford, Vt., adopted Korean children, the adoption agency stressed the importance of not ignoring their children's cultural background. So the couple read up on Korean culture.
But it was not until they joined a mentoring program run by Dartmouth's Korean American Student Association (KASA) that they could immerse themselves in Korean culture without leaving the Upper Valley.
Founded long before any of the current organizers can recall, the program now matches nearly 50 adopted Korean children from the area with Korean and Korean American undergraduates at Dartmouth.
Once or twice a month the families and students meet on campus, with crafts and games for the young children and Korean food and culture events for all.
At a Korean Culture Festival over Memorial Day weekend, for example, the families and their Dartmouth mentors milled around the Collis Center, watching a Korean dancing troupe perform while the children were introduced to a game of Korean dice.
"Do you know where I could get sets like these; I haven't seen this around," one mother asked with a roll of the die.
Two tables over, Katrina Ullrich, 6, of W. Berlin, N.H., tested out the new game with her Big Sister Dongha Yang '05.
"She was so excited to come," her father, Larry, said. The family just joined the program, he explained, driving from their home over an hour away, and today marked the first time Katrina had been surrounded by so many Korean faces and Korean culture.
"She's able to identify with the kids and her Big Sister, having the same color hair, the same shaped eyes," her mother, Madeline, added.
According to Nora Yasumura, Advisor to Asian and Asian American students at Dartmouth, this sort of "racial modeling" can prove invaluable for children of color, especially if their surrounding community does not otherwise positively reinforce their racial and cultural background.
"If you lived in New York, you could go to Flushing or Queens and enroll your child in Korean language school," but options in the Upper Valley are more limited, Yasumura said.
This need inspired Wendy Wong '03 to dedicate the past year to revitalizing a long-defunct mentoring program run by the Dartmouth Asian Organization and to match Chinese American children from the area with Dartmouth mentors.
Although Asian American students comprise 13 percent of the undergraduate population (roughly 20 and 30 percent of whom are Korean American and Chinese American, respectively), according to Wong, within the Upper Valley "you don't see a lot of Asian people."
These mentors prove especially valuable as children mature and develop questions concerning their racial or cultural identity that their parents might feel ill equipped to answer, Yasumura said.
"Raising any child is challenging. But when you add race and culture in our society, it's much more complicated and requires a lot more work."
"We thought it would be much easier than it is," Wendy Wells, who has adopted two Korean children, acknowledged.
Since joining the mentoring program six years ago, however, she has become one of its strongest proponents, still keeping in touch with her children's long-graduated Big Sister and organizing get-togethers among the parents.
Over the years a small community among the program's families has now developed, with many becoming greatly involved in the Korean culture, Dianne Choie '04, coordinator of the KASA Big Brother/Big Sister program, said.
Those interested in participating in the KASA Big Brother/Big Sister program should call 646-0123 or e-mail Nora Yasumura.
- Kathleen McDermott '04
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