After getting his Bachelor’s degree at Hanyang University in South Korea, Gyu Leem wanted to get his doctoral degree in a place where he could meet people from different backgrounds. So he moved to the fourth largest city in the U.S.: Houston, Texas.
“I just want to meet a lot of students who came from different countries,” Leem, an assistant chemistry professor at SUNY-ESF, said. “So, the U.S. is the best country to study abroad, because I can try a lot of different foods but stay in a small area.”
While Leem enjoyed the exposure to American culture at the University of Houston, his biggest challenge during his first year was overcoming the language barrier and learning English slang words, which was different from what he learned in textbooks growing up.
Leem said that in his first class, a student asked him “What’s up?” rather than “How are you?” Leem replied, “There’s nothing on the top, nothing but the sky.”
Leem said one main lesson he learned from traveling is that confidence is the best way to overcome the language barrier. When Leem spent a year and a half in Milan, Italy, he had never spoken Italian before, but he managed to learn by conversing with strangers and asking for corrections. Leem moved back to South Korea for his job at his technology company and then back to the U.S. in 2012 to be with his wife, who was studying in Florida.
One reason Leem has remained in the U.S. is that he enjoys working with students of all different cultures and backgrounds.
In his classes, where there can be up to 100 students, there are many students of all sorts ethnicities, different majors and work ethics.
“There’s the slow learners, fast learners, old students, young students, motivated students and less motivated students,” he said. “There are many international students in the U.S. I could go back to South Korea and I can be a professor at the university, but there is no diversity.”
Leem said he became a chemistry professor because he wanted to use his industry and academic experience to teach students about what he’s learned.
“I feel like this is kind of my responsibility. That I will learn from the people in the field, so I have to convey that knowledge now to the next generation,” he said.
After working as an Assistant Professor of Research at The University of Texas at San Antonio, Leem then arrived at SUNY-ESF in 2018. He chose ESF because of the level of research at the university and the low student-to-faculty ratio.
Leem said traveling to different places is the best way for people to become open-minded and foster a more inclusive environment. As someone who’s traveled often, he has a better understanding of cultural differences and knows to be aware of them, while others do not, he said.
He said this type of education and exposure are the main ways to combat racism, especially on college campuses. He said people who commit acts of racism are normally localized people who grow up in a small area with little education.
“It depends on the area, it depends on how educated you are, it depends on how limited you are,” he said.