Westminster alumnus Joseph Kim believes that all children deserve to have music and a great music teacher in their lives. Since he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Music Education in 2015, he’s devoted himself to achieving that goal — first in Swaziland and now in Hong Kong.
“I’m a third-culture kid,” he says, reflecting on his pre-college life. Born in Dallas, Texas, he moved with his family to South Korea, and he spent early childhood there. But when he turned 12, he divided his time between his parents’ home in South Korea and attending schools in Minnesota, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia. He says, “I think consistently being exposed to a new environment helped me to be less afraid of going out and adapting to other cultures.”
In fact, as a Westminster student he returned to South Korea to student teach under Jamie Ryder '16 at International Christian School-Uijeongbu. That experience reinforced his desire to work with third-culture kids facing issues similar to what he faced growing up. He recalls, “There was a time when I thought my friends couldn’t relate to my issues and experiences. But wherever I was, I found close friends and a safe haven in choirs, and those experiences allowed me to understand the power of choral singing.”
Soon after graduating from Westminster, he learned about a newly established music school seeking for a teacher in Swaziland, a small monarchy in southern Africa. Swaziland Christian University, which is establishing a music school to train teachers to bring music into the country’s public schools, where no such programs currently exist. He reached out to the director and expressed his interest in assisting with the program. Knowing about Westminster’s reputation for music education, she invited him to come, with the warning, “There are many challenges of starting music teacher’s program at a place where most people do not have any conception of what music education is.” After a phone call with the director, he was even more intrigued by the unique opportunity to be part of a program that would make a difference in a developing country where so many young people are not given an experience that people take for granted in the United States. He booked a flight to Swaziland and was there two weeks later.
Teaching in Swaziland was a far cry from Princeton. Swaziland has the highest HIV and AIDS prevalence in the world, with about 30 percent of their adult population living with HIV. He says, “Seeing so many young kids and adolescents, many from broken families, wander around streets made me think of how empowering it would be for them to be a part of community like a choir or orchestra.” The school established a small orchestra and choir apart from the one-year music teacher-training program. Assisting with such a program would be challenging for any teacher, much less someone starting his career.
“The challenges the music school, lecturers and students faced daily are multi-layered and there is no clear, cure-for-all solution. Most students struggle financially, and not many students are able to pay the small tuition. The school and students are marginalized by people’s conception of music education as “entertainment” and musicians as “entertainer,” he says, “The school strongly believes that by training music teachers, they can positively transform their communities and the greater society.”
Another significant challenge he faced was dealing with frequent student absences. Soon after he arrived, he found that more than 50 percent of a class or choir miss lessons for various reasons. To compensate for this, he says, “Instead of having regular rehearsals, a choir would have a five or six-hour “boot camp” style rehearsal to prepare for a performance or competition. I was appalled by this idea and my first reaction was to fix it.” But he quickly learned that because most of them have full time jobs and transportation is limited, for many choir members, this is their only option. After learning more about each student’s life outside the classroom and the culture, he began to appreciate the rationale behind many practices he didn’t understand at first.
“Working with music students and the Swazi people in general opened my eyes to many important issues, such as a music educator's role on social justice and the importance of culturally responsive teaching and leadership,” he says. “It allowed me to reflect on pedagogical methods that best fits the students' culture and background and sensitivity to their needs beyond classroom.” Thanks to the Music Education professors at Westminster, he was able to incorporate and reflect on various methods such as Dalcroze, Kodály, and Orff as ways to make learning music exciting and meaningful for the students. He says, “Working with aspiring music teachers instilled in me a deeper passion for music education and a desire to continue this mission and study further in the future.”
To offer other educational opportunities to the choral conductors he was working with, he invited Mercedes Chan MM’15 to come as a visiting clinician at the school. Mercedes helped the school host a conducting workshop for Swazi choral conductors and led a competition. One of the participating conductors, Vincent Kunene, was selected for a scholarship to Westminster’s Summer Conducting Institute. Kim says, “I am very grateful to Professor James Jordan and Scott Hoerl for granting this experience to Mr. Kunene, who will empower fellow musicians in Swaziland.”
Reflecting on his nine months in Swaziland, he says, “I gained much more than I gave.” He also takes fulfillment in being a part of the development of the first four-year Bachelor of Music in Music Education degree program in Swaziland.
In September 2016, he embarked on a new educational adventure — teaching at the International Christian Quality Music Secondary and Primary School in Hong Kong, where he’s teaching choirs, music appreciation, and voice lessons. He says, “It is a huge blessing to be able to share my passions through something I deeply care about that is teaching and choral music. Being in unfamiliar environments where I am constantly faced with cultural differences and unexpected challenges stretches me to grow. Those challenges often reveal my weaknesses but also reinforce and build my passion and drive.”