Eastern Michigan University is proud of the countless women making their imprint in history. In this feature, Eastern recognizes Myung-Sook Koh, professor of special education and program coordinator for paraeducators to special educators. Koh discusses her career background, inspiration behind her work, and how she maintains a work-life balance.
YPSILANTI — Women’s History Month reminds Myung-Sook Koh, professor of special education and program coordinator for paraeducators to special educators at Eastern Michigan University, that more has to be done to protect women’s rights.
The road to success was challenging for Koh and often lacked hope. Born in a rural and poverty-stricken area of South Korea, she remembers what it was like to eat just one meal a day in childhood, and to see women shackled to their roles in society due to limited education and the heavy responsibility of child-rearing. By observing how helpless the women in her life were without financial capability, she made a promise to herself that she would go to school and create a better life.
By 31, Koh moved to the United States with her husband and three-year-old son. She intended to stay for only a few years while earning her second master’s degree, but while in the U.S., a professor urged her to pursue a doctorate in special education.
“I don’t know what the professor saw in me,” Koh said. “But he reasoned that special education was in high demand, so whether I chose to go back to Korea or stay in the U.S., I would be able to find a stable job.”
“For young adults trying to choose their career path, a significant part of it should be dictated by their interests and skills in life,” she added. “Still, your decision should also be largely guided by what is needed from you by the broader community.”
Koh was accepted by the University of Memphis, where she sought special education teaching positions in the Memphis City schools. She was in desperate need of work and a paycheck.
After being hired to teach children with intellectual disabilities, it soon became one of the most eye-opening experiences for Koh. She learned that many children living in poverty were improperly diagnosed with disabilities and had the potential intelligence to learn to read and write within a year. She continued teaching students in the classroom for years, overcoming many challenges and cultural differences.
As time passed, Koh realized the limitations of her influence in the classroom while countless children were waiting for teachers who could change their lives. She transitioned to higher education, where she would train teachers to educate children with potential intelligence who were diagnosed with disabilities. Koh encouraged her students to teach in urban schools within large cities, as she felt everyone deserved a fair opportunity to learn.
In August 2005, Koh started her position as an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University, teaching special education and communication sciences and disorders.
“My career journey has been such a rewarding experience,” she said. “I have made it further in my career than I ever imagined in my 20s. Koh claims she is motivated to continue her career in helping students by looking back at her mother’s life.”
“My mother inspired me so much,” she explained. “My mom, a second-grade drop-out, saw what education could do to children. So she would continually encourage me to pursue my education to earn my freedom.”
When reflecting upon Women’s History Month and women’s rights, Koh offers several thoughts.
“When I see the controversies and contention regarding equality between men and women in the workplace, I believe the real question lies in what we mean by success,” said Koh. “The definition of success ultimately depends on each individual and their values. We must let go of the notion that prioritizing the success of our children is a failure on the part of women, and we must learn to see through what society or the media dictates as success and think more for ourselves.”
With tears in her eyes, Koh says she wishes to hug her 20-year-old self when considering her career path and journey. “I struggled so much in my youth, feeling as though I was trapped in a system that could not recognize my talents. Coming to America gave me the opportunity I had been seeking, and I managed to make my life, become financially capable, and achieve success professionally. And while I suffered greatly while trying to balance the personal and professional, I would not change a single aspect of my upbringing.”
“Women have come a long way, and there is still much work to be done, not only for women but for all children looking up to us and dreaming about their future,” Koh said.
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 14,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and its graduate school. National publications regularly recognize EMU for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. Visit the University’s rankings and points of pride websites to learn more. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University’s website. To stay up to date on University news, activities and announcements, visit EMU Today.