This is a story that needs a little background, for that is as important as the story. I went to Oslo in 2010 to study a Master’s program at the Oslo University College (now Oslo Metropolitan University). A large number of international students pursue higher studies in Norway, particularly Oslo, like other European cities. Because of my inclination towards students’ politics, I started participating in various activities organized by the International Students’ Union of Norway and served as a leader in different capacities in the years to come. I met friends from all over the world, represented them at various platforms, organized and participated in campaigns for their rights and for a tuition-free education. My studies there and the involvement in the Union gave me the opportunity to meet Dr. Gomez from Nicaragua.
We worked together with other members of the Union to make our university (and Norway) a better place for international students. We ran the film club, organized multicultural dinners, looked after hostel facilities and worked towards quality education. We became a close-knit group, a kinship that we still carry. After completing their courses, a majority of students decided to move to another country or back to their home countries, and I, along with some others, decided to stay back in Oslo to complete my thesis. Dr. Gomez went back to Nicaragua. Rianne and Malina to their home countries (mentioning Rianne and Malina is important because they were actively involved in our work and left us for another world some time ago. They will always be in our memories). Dr. Gomez has continuously fought for the rights of women in her country by playing an active role in protests and campaigns. She has also been advocating universal as well as affordable health care, which is clearly reflected in her writings.
In 2013 I went back to India, and Dr. Gomez went for another program at Hanyang University, in Seoul, South Korea. Something happened there, which is better told in her own words:
“Not many people can say that they’re excited to begin a third Master’s degree. I was, over two years ago in 2016, when I was granted a scholarship to study in Seoul, South Korea. As a Nicaraguan medical doctor, this was a challenge for not many people want to leave everything (job, family, home) behind to go to the other side of the world to study. I did because of many reasons, foremost being the want to gather knowledge and experience in Asia, in order to pursue a Ph.D. on a public health-related field. I was told and I had read many things about South Korea, and among them was that professors were tough academically and that the program was extremely demanding. It seemed interesting to me because I love challenges and it was nothing new as I had already pursued a Master’s degree in Oslo, which in my view was equally demanding of time and dedication. Little did I know that the challenges I would face here were not going to be related to academics.
On our first day of the program, along with the introductions, our main professor in Korea told us that we were no longer professionals, and that we were now regarded as “humble stupid students”. The word ‘stupid’ resonated and it was just the beginning of a series of demeaning treatment we would face individually and collectively. My classmates were mainly from African and Asian countries. None of them, other than me, had previously studied abroad. It was primarily because of that and the history of Korean professors’ tough disposition, that other students chose to stay quiet and endure. We were bullied, insulted, harassed and discriminated against by this man over a period of sixteen months. One day, five months before concluding the program, he insulted me by making a sexual joke in class that humiliated and offended me like never before. It was then that I decided I had had enough.
Approximately three weeks before completing the program, I filed a formal complaint to the University, the cooperation agency that sponsored our scholarship, my embassy and the human rights commission in Korea. I went all the way because after all, we were no kindergarten students as he would often call us. We were government officials from 12 different countries and we deserved to be treated with respect and dignity as anyone else. Being academically demanding had nothing to do with using derogatory language and insulting people because of their skin color, origin, socio-economic background and how well they spoke English. There’s certainly no reason for being called stupid repeatedly as a way of teaching, let alone being the subject of sexual jokes like the ones he made. This was a professor at a prestigious university in Korea, a doctor with a Ph.D., who belittled his students, especially those, who like us, came from developing countries.
To my surprize I was not the first one complaining. In total we were six, some had done so years ago and nothing had been done. This had been going on for a while. I realized he had a narcissistic personality, never accepted his mistakes and believed he was always right. He believed he never did anything wrong either, a typical behavioural disorder. The harassment I faced worsened after my complaint. I asked him to apologize, but he did not, ever. He went to the extent of trying to make me fail the program and even defamed me. Some of my former classmates took his side for their own vested interests and I became the enemy because I spoke up. As a female medical doctor, I never thought something like this would ever happen to me. It did, but I fought back. I spoke about the harassment I faced in the context of the #MeToo movement and basic human and women’s rights. I asked the university to suspend him permanently for the sake of future generations because I knew he was not going to change.
After nine months of replying to emails and basically fighting for my rights and the rights of those students that complained before me, and the ones to come, the disciplinary commission at the university made a decision that was disturbing and left me with more questions than answers. He was to be suspended for two months only, there would be limitations on teaching, medical practice, and on applying to grants (because of corruption in projects he handled, with money from the Korean Government), his salary had been reduced and the university had stalled receiving students sponsored by the cooperation agency for four years. I was told this was the best outcome I could expect from the university, as it was known for protecting professors that committed many crimes, including sexual (many local newspaper articles have reported about this) and monetary ones. Most professors are decent and respectful in Korea, something that should be admired; also, in no way this experience made me change my views about Korean people or the country based on the behavior of a cynical man. I have the power of going through rough times, dusting off and keep going, this was no exception.”
The email from Prof. Han, in which he was supposed to basically apologize for his behavior, was instead an explanation and justification for his acts. He wrote a five-page-long email with a five-page attachment explaining his behaviour. The attachments, for example, cited academic references to explain words like “Stupid”:
” STUPID: According to several studies on medical education, what students feel about their “incompetence” to follow up with the high demand of medical school curriculum is referred to as students feeling “stupid” about themselves. The word “stupid” is not only used as everyday vocabulary but also used in academic papers. As already described in Course Information (CI)1)KOICA Master’s program, is an intensive and demanding program where students must complete a specific number of course units in a limited period. During the program orientation, I had explained that due to a various background of students attending this course, the differences exist not only in students’ learning abilities but also in outcomes of their study as many different factors are involved in determining the study outcome. Because of this, I have mentioned numerous times that regardless of their previous position in their country, if students have the heart and desire to learn, I will be more than welcome to share my time with them, even over the weekends to improve their learning experience. I told the students several times that I also come to office even during the weekends to continue my studies because I regard myself too as a “stupid” student who still has much to study. In order to explain and deliver these types of messages, I used the word “stupid” to describe my own faults and stupidity. As I previously mentioned, the word “stupid” is even used in academic papers to describe one’s feelings or situations, but I am also aware that the meaning of the word can be perceived differently, and I feel unfortunate to have caused such an issue. “
And the term “MBA”: The term MBA is the acronym of Master of Business Administration, but it can also be used as an acronym for ‘Married but available.’ This term was mentioned during the course called “Healthcare organization management and practice” (Fall semester, 2016). One of the main issues among healthcare professionals is the career break a woman takes, especially among the nurses. During my lecture, we compared the status of healthcare professionals in Korea and other developing countries and discussed the concept of career break. I mentioned marriage and childrearing as the main reason for career break among nurses in Korea…” [It further adds some graphs and images to explain it]
There are similar explanations for terms like “Pig” and “Rural Chickens”.
The disciplinary committee could have simply given Prof. Han a forced retirement after the detailed inquiry but instead decided to go easy on him by reducing his salary and giving him a short suspension. We have also read and looked into stories of researchers and professors of South Korea involved in harassment and misuse of money.
To many, the moral of the story may seem like a small victory, maybe it is, but we certainly thought that things would be easier and different in some parts of the world. On the other hand, this experience gave us the strength to continue our fight for equal rights and justice for all.”
(Dr. Gomez is not the actual name of my friend. We decided to change it due to political and security reasons. She is now seeking political asylum in the United States, and I am currently based in Moscow, Russia. We have the emails sent by Prof. Han and the Committee but due to the confidential nature of the emails and the possible repercussions for Dr. Gomez, we decided to present only some excerpts.)