An interview with Founder & President, Jinsu Yu, of Better World, EIL Korea
(Adapted from About Our Institution: Federation EIL – Collective Histories, edited by Alvino Fantini.)
“I happened to befriend a German fellow while a senior at college in 1997. We were at a bar, drinking beer, when he spoke about a camp he used to attend every year. As he described his experience, I fell instantly in love with the idea of the program — community service performed by foreign youth! What a nice way to form an international relationship!
I filled out the application form and sent it to SCI Germany. But my application was rejected because they only accepted applications through an organization. I wrote a second letter to point out that there were no such organizations in Korea; and if Germany SCI was to expand their boundaries, they would need to consider applications from countries without the required organization. This time, they gave an affirmative reply.
I arrived in Germany a week before the camp program to meet the president of the organization. I explored how the organization ran and also made careful observations during the week. Three weeks passed by quickly. During that time, I organized and executed a energy-saving campaign in the German countryside along with European youths of my same age. When I returned home, I felt an intense “fever” to return abroad: I wanted to go back to Germany but knew I would not have the chance again since I was about to graduate.
It is not that I did not try to follow the typical footsteps of other graduates. I did fill out a work application, but it was turned down. So, I started my own business, but it didn’t last a year. I knew I could perform very well. At school, I was the student representative who had created various kinds of community service for peers. This involved marketing, recruiting, planning, organizing, and even designing. I was also an active volunteer lecturer for young students at YMCA Korea. What I didn’t know was the ‘direction’ my life’s work would take.
Combine this situation with my realization (that) there was such a wide world out there, so wide that what I had learned so far seemed insignificant; so wide that what I knew was hardly universal truth, and so wide that I found myself still on the periphery. I had to admit how small I was, how magnified the world is, and I began to expand the horizon of my thoughts. If more young eyes could see what I saw and experience what I experienced, all of Korea might change!
So, I decided to give it a go. I wanted to send Korean youths overseas and accept foreign youths in Korea to perform various community services. Thus I started IWO (the International Work Camp Organization) in 1999, now called Better World. I bought a book on designing websites because the Internet was the cheapest way to recruit people back then. It took one month of self-study to complete the first Work Camp website. Aside from the new technology, most of the rest was all old school: I already knew how to plan, organize, and publicize a program. I also knew how to recruit people. My confidence, competence and passion finally found an outlet.
But then I also needed a partner to host my students. I flew to Germany and visited SCI Germany once again. They still remembered me from the past work camp and our talks went smoothly. I told them I had established an organization in Korea and showed them the website. They accepted my partnership proposal. With such a historical and respected partner, I could now expand international partnerships with other influential organizations such as VFP (USA), NICE (Japan) and SJ (France). Although I was unknown to them, they knew my partner and agreed to form strategic bonds.
During the first year, I sent 49 Korean students to Germany and hosted a local work camp with 16 incoming students, including one from Hong Kong and another from Canada. I stayed in Korea with the 16 students. Our first assigned task was to polish art sculptures at the Moran Museum of Art. All I requested to do the job was a space which could accommodate 16 people. I erected tents and made the worktables myself. On weekends, I hired a car and traveled to various other places with those 16 students. Such fun moments!
Growth was exponential. In less than ten years, I found myself sending 2,000 students out into the world. And there are now about 30 staff members in the organization. Though we were expanding fast and able to provide life-changing opportunities for countless participants, I always thought that Better World was not “there” yet. SCI Germany, the very root of the work camp, was a peace movement. Participants in the program learned a lot, but ”education” was not a key concern. The main theme was “peace” and ”reconstruction.” But I had really started Better World in an attempt to educate young people by letting them experience the wider world outside of Korea.
Then in 2005, one of our partners, Thailand Work Camp, introduced us to Federation EIL. EIL was an educational organization. They had great educational resources and field experience, not to mention a huge network around the world. It was exactly what we sought. We applied for membership and that bond filled in the gap. And it was through this partnership that I learned more about education in terms of content and philosophy.
EIL is still one of our most important references and sources of valuable information and international networking. When incorporated with Work Camp, the identity of Better World was fulfilled.
Today, more Koreans than ever before have traveled to other countries. Back in 1999, it was hard to find anyone who had traveled outside the country. I personally had no such acquaintances. And now? It is hard to find someone who has not been abroad. People are more aware of the big world out there. They are more open and more international. Most of all, they are more willing to help others.
The biggest reason for such change was Korea’s economic growth. More people can now afford to purchase a plane ticket. And the increasing need for fluency in English is also a factor. We have many participants who join our programs principally to learn English.
It is hard to measure the contribution we made toward bringing about such changes. But apparently many participants suffer from the same “fever” I had. Some of them even switch the direction of their life. Their goals alter. And they spread the news, inviting more people to our programs. We are now one of the most sought after programs by college students. And the size of our program participants is growing dramatically every year. There is no measurement of our contribution because we are still far from being done.”