A Message From the Project Director
Who was the first student from Korea at Harvard? Who was the first student from Korea who received a Harvard degree? Why did they pursue studies at Harvard and how did their Harvard education contribute to their lives and careers? The Harvard Korean Alumni Biographies Project was conceived to respond to these and related questions.
According to Harvard Worldwide, in 2018, 317 South Korean citizens were enrolled at Harvard, the fourth largest number of international students by country after Canada, China, and India. That same year, the total number of Harvard alumni from Korea was 1,413. These numbers, however, do not accurately reflect Korea’s contribution to Harvard because they did not include Korean Americans and other overseas Koreans. It is sufficient to say that, to Koreans and the Korean diasporic population—called “Koreans” in this project for the sake of convenience—Harvard has been the emblem of higher education.
From the beginning, the threshold to enter, study, and receive a degree from Harvard was very high. In the first half of the twentieth century, Korean students faced linguistic, cultural, and financial difficulties, in addition to the fact that Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Therefore, we found only a handful of Koreans who attended Harvard before 1945. Pyeng Koo Yoon (Yun Pyŏng-gu) was the first to attend Harvard College as a special student in 1906–1907. Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭng-man), the first president of the Republic of Korea, was the first to receive a degree from Harvard—a master’s degree in 1910. Kyung-Duck Har (Ha Kyŏng-dŏk) was the first Korean to graduate from Harvard College in 1925. Har also earned a Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1928, another historical first.
Except for Har, no other Korean received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard until Jong Wook Ra (Na Chong-uk) graduated from Harvard College in 1957. Meanwhile, a small number of Koreans studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard’s other professional schools before 1945, mostly in the late 1920s to the early 1930s. After Korea’s liberation from colonial rule in 1945, we see a steady increase in the number of Korean students studying at GSAS and the professional schools. As for Korean students at Harvard College, the Harvard College Yearbooks show about ten students who graduated in the 1950s and 1960s. That number grew to about twenty in the 1970s. Then, we see an exponential increase in the number of Koreans graduating from Harvard College annually from the 1980s, numbering more than a few dozen in the year 1989. The reader should note that our data is approximate because the Harvard College Yearbooks do not specify a student’s ethnic or national identity and, therefore, we counted only those with typical Korean names.
In this project, we initially selected early Harvard attendees and graduates as subjects for short biographies with an aim to add more entries as the project evolves in the future. We strategically included non-degree students, given the rarity and difficulty for Koreans to attend Harvard in the first half of the twentieth century. Our team members investigated Harvard student record archives, various online databases and archives, and other library and online sources to gather and verify information. We tried to narrate each person’s records at Harvard, their career, and life trajectory.
I would like to thank Harvard’s Korea Institute for its support from the inception of this project and all the team members who greatly contributed to the project. We put utmost care and caution in writing these biographies. Should a reader find an error, however, please write to the project director.
Sun Joo Kim
The Harvard Korean Alumni Biographies Project is led by Professor Sun Joo Kim. A team of Harvard graduate students carry out research and writing for each biography under the Project Director’s supervision.
Harvard-Yenching Professor of Korean History
Research Assistant and Webmaster, 2019–present
Research Assistant, 2020–2021
Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages, ’2021
Research Assistant, 2020–present
Ph.D. Candidate in History and East Asian Languages