When Bo Yun Park lived in Paris as a girl, her family dubbed her “the little diplomat.” In the playgrounds, Park taught Korean words to the neighborhood children. On the streets, Park translated for her mother, who spoke limited French. From a window at home, she gazed at limousines pulling up at a foreign ministry across the street. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Park—now the sophomore class president of Barnard—would seek out an international experience as a college student.
In fact, Park returned to South Korea for high school where she attended a competitive school in Seoul that grooms its students for top-notch American universities. She didn’t question whether she would apply to colleges in the United States. The question was, which one? “When I first mentioned Barnard to my parents, they were like, ‘Bah-what?’” says Park, who tosses American lingo about with apparent ease, but whose dress on this crisp autumn morning, a navy blue sweater and matching skirt, seems inspired by the uniforms of Korean high schools.
Park is one among many foreign students on campus, but she may soon belong to even larger group. In her inaugural address last year, President Debora Spar underscored her intention to expand Barnard’s international presence, on campus and abroad. “President Spar’s goal of ‘internationalizing’ Barnard is, in fact, my favorite among her many projects,” says Park, who has already been assigned as a “buddy” for an incoming student in the new Visiting International Students Program (VISP). Park says the international focus will “foster an environment that is even more intellectually stimulating.”
Nibbling on an almond croissant, Park smiles often and broadly as she speaks, addressing each question in the concise yet thorough manner of one accustomed to public oration. For three years in a row at Daewon Foreign Language High School, she placed in the national championships for her parliamentary debate skills.
Park says she was drawn to Barnard’s rare combination: a small, intimate college conferring the resources of a large research university. She never imagined that her first heady weeks at the school last fall would include visits to the Columbia campus by the then-presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain.
As class president, Park ticks off three central goals: building community among members of the sophomore class; assisting students in the challenge of declaring their majors; and keeping in touch with Columbia College students. So far, she’s organized a study break, “Gimme, Gimme S(opho)’more,” at which s’mores were served, and she introduced a “department fair” to allow students to explore the various disciplines offered at Barnard as they begin pondering their majors.
Park, who also serves as a resident assistant, finds the workload manageable after the grueling stint at Daewon, where six hours of Korean-language instruction would be followed by another six in English. The program, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is known for its rigor. But while Park says that high school may have stretched her “to the limit of human stress,” she says at Barnard she’s often required to spend more time thinking. “In Korea, if you sit down, you can do it.” Here, “a walk in Morningside actually might be more helpful than sitting at a desk.”
For years Park has assumed that she would one day work in international diplomacy, but after an internship last summer at the Ministry of Foreign affairs in South Korea, she’s reconsidering. Instead, Park may pursue a doctorate in political science, perhaps in France. She’s quiet for a moment. Her dad, she explains, diplomatically dropping her voice to a near whisper, “says that grad school may be better in Europe."
-by Elicia Brown '90, photograph by Kate Ryan '09