Overachiever Interview Series
Get to Know Yang Jiyeon
Name: Yang Susana Jiyeon
Career Profile: Freelance Korean Instructor.
Education: Ajou Graduate School of International Studies, S. Korea.
Yang Jiyeon’s career is a bit of a plot twist. From early years raised by a single dad and other parental figures in and outside the home, she quickly figured out that even though there were many around that she could reach out to, she would always be the most reliable person in her life. After a situation that led to her father kicking her out of his house, she started out on her own. Today she’s an ambassador in her own right and she shares her story of self- discovery and how the light at the end of a job hunt tunnel eventually led her to a freelance career that has, literally, opened up her world.
After going out on my own, I started working as an English teacher in a small institute and looking for a place to live. Then, by chance, I saw an advertisement for a master’s program in Korean Studies: one which would provide 50% tuition and housing for me. I took a chance and gained admission to the program.
It all started in Bolivia. I met a missionary while I was in college. She was working for Bolivian churches and schools that were situated in poverty-stricken areas. A missionary friend of mine asked me to assist her and I thought it would be a good opportunity to gain valuable experience so I accepted.
At the time, Bolivia was a country that sorely lacked the most basic social services such as education, general administration, basic medical services and I felt like I was doing important work. I taught Bolivian children and assisted in management at the CEPIA academy that was connected with the local education system and other programs.
It didn’t take long to realize that many Bolivians didn’t know much about Korea. They thought Korea was located in China, that Koreans still used Chinese writing, and that Hyundai, Samsung, and LG were companies from Japan. I had heard that there were many schools established by Koreans abroad and that some taught Korean-related courses like Korean language and Korean culture, but with little success. They didn’t have enough volunteers/teachers who wanted to share Korean culture, or they didn’t have good programs or know government policies that could help promote sharing knowledge about Korea. That helped me settle on a career path. I was going to be a professional teaching Korean language and Korean culture to people from other parts of the world. That decision led me to major in Korean Studies at Ajou Graduate School of International Studies.
It wasn’t so easy after graduation because employers wanted teachers with at least two years of experience so I started answering job ads that were over two years old because I needed the work and the money. Finally, I heard back from an institute that was looking for a Korean instructor who could teach a Spanish-speaking Samsung employee. I had picked up Spanish while in Bolivia and felt confident that I could do it. We started having lessons at the Samsung offices, but the student had to cancel classes often. As I only had the one student, the canceled classes had a negative effect on me. I even started contemplating quitting.
I got a sudden call from the institute I was working for. One of their teachers working with Samsung had to leave the country, and four classes had opened up. My student had said great things about me and so they offered me the classes and I gladly accepted.
I did everything to prepare my classes perfectly, understand their busy schedules and make our time as enjoyable as possible. I got great feedback from my students and commendations from my institute. I even got a best teacher award in 2011. Teaching Korean had become my career but I was doing all of the work yet giving up 20 – 30% of the class fee to the institute.
I started working for myself on the side and the institute didn’t know about it at first. Soon I was teaching independently half the time and teaching for the institute the rest of the time. It wasn’t too long before I was able to support myself through freelance classes. I registered my business and started my own institute. I have been freelancing 100% for almost 3 years now and even though I run a small operation, my clients keep recommending me to new people.
What notable Brands/companies have you worked with?
I have worked with Samsung Electronics & Mechatronics, SAAB, Milward Brown, Faurecia Automotive, Vibracoustic Isolation and Gyeong-hee University in Korea among others.
What challenges have you faced as a freelancer?
No one should make the mistake of thinking a freelancer’s life is easy or “free” in any way. There are so many issues freelancers face that company employees never even have to consider. There’s the issue of my schedule. My first class could be for 7 AM and my last at 9 PM. I work weekends and sometimes have to rearrange my work schedule if I want to meet friends on special occasions. It can be hard to balance not wanting to disappoint my students with not wanting to disappoint my friends.
I have to consider finances because my teaching hours are never guaranteed. Sometimes students want to take breaks from classes due to their work or take vacations and that could mean a temporary loss of income. I have learned to plan ahead and maintain a positive attitude. In months when I have extra work, I save money for the months when I might have less. In the slow months, take advantage of my extra time off by traveling. Despite my best efforts, though, I also have to accept that when my mood may suffer when there’s less income coming in.
I have to be my biggest marketer. To find new students, I network at parties and events hosted by my students and I approach foreigners in Suwon. Direct marketing is usually very effective.
Despite the challenges, freelancing means that there’s no limit to my income. If I worked for a company, my pay increases would be limited to standard yearly raises which would only mean a slight, annual improvement to my living standard. As a freelancer, taking on more classes or introducing new teaching methods means an automatic bump to my paycheck, and there is no maximum to what I can possibly earn – or dream to earn.
Freelancing keeps me active. I teach in various parts of Suwon and Seoul, in coffee shops, in my students’ offices, and sometimes in my students’ homes. I don’t feel tethered or pressured by an employer or a desk. Also, being able to meet my students where they are means that they feel comfortable and are open to learning.
Whether or not you’ll find success as a freelancer depends completely on you. First, you need to be prepared financially speaking, before making the jump you should be prepared with enough money to survive and make ends meet while you get things figured out.
Also, any successful freelancer will need to have a lot of patience. With that said, you need to do more than just wait. You can’t be lazy if you want to succeed in freelance. During those slow times when you aren’t contracted for many hours, you need to spend your free time on the lookout for work at every hour.
Speaking of work, you should keep in mind that your number of contracted hours is not the same as your number of working hours. You need to do other tasks that are not part of your contract: administrative work, trips to the bank, marketing, and other preparations should all factor into your thinking about the life of a freelancer. Make sure you’re not taking on more than you can handle.
Additionally, I think a successful freelancer has to have a kind of business sense. To keep a steady flow of clients, you should identify their needs as customers and communicate these needs to them. I can’t expect that my potential students will always know the value of Korean classes, and it’s up to me to convince them.
In busy times too, you can’t ignore the image of my business. For one reason or another, you may sometimes feel it’s best to turn down a potential client’s offer. At those times, you need to word your refusal carefully so that you can maintain a good working relationship with the person or company. I never know when I may need to revisit an offer, so I don’t take relationships for granted even when they don’t bring me money.
Although my students first meet me as their teacher, they tell me all about their issues at their work and daily lives. I am someone they turn to for advice and help as they adjust to life in Korean society. I am the window and guide to new places, tourism, mindsets and just, life. So I need to present a positive image to my students even when this doesn’t match my true feelings. I just try to follow the path of my life, like water following a stream. When I look ten years to the future, I don’t know exactly where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing, but I’m sure I’ll be content because I have this mindset.
What do you love about your job?
I love the fact that my students are all adults, and many are a similar age to me. It means I can relate and learn from their life experiences. My students have also become friends and even long after our working relationship is finished, I still keep in touch with them. These relationships have been invaluable to my business expansion.
My students have introduced me to new cultures and new foods. As someone who likes learning and trying new things, I value this greatly. This makes it easier to teach other students with the same culture in future.
There’s something special about teaching a new language to someone from the first time. I don’t have any children, but I imagine that hearing my students speak Korean for the first time is something like what a mom experiences when she hears her baby’s first words. Watching my students go from their first utterances in Korean to eventual fluency and independence gives me a sense of achievement that can only be found in few jobs.
3 lessons you have learned from teaching Korean to people from all over the world, introducing them to your culture and listening to them talk about their own culture.
It may sound cliché, but if there’s one thing I have learned from working with people from other cultures is that, at our core, we are all more the same than different. Even though my students and I differ in appearance, language, food, and customs, we always find that we have so much in common with each other. I learn amazing things about how different races and ethnic groups throw parties and celebrate good times. I am familiar with quirky customs regarding children and marriage too. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing my students complain about their in-laws. They sound just like my Korean friends!!
I’ve learned that many people and teachers seem focused on speaking correctly, but there is really no One Way to speak. We all have our own ways of speaking and I realize now that the only thing that really matters is whether we understand each other or not. My students have taught me not to judge people on how they speak, but rather by what they say.
Above all, I’ve learned to respect other cultures and not regard them as being good or bad. We are all raised to appreciate what is around us, and it’s natural to develop a bias but that does not mean that other cultures are better or worse than ours. It just means that they are different. And ‘different’ is great.
Connect with this Overachiever at:
FB: Susana Jiyeon Yang