Yoonyoung is a Registered Foreign Lawyer, in charge of the Korea desk in our Ho Chi Minh City office.
Ask almost anyone and they will tell you that a particular person, often a teacher, or a particular book, has had a profound influence on their life. In Yoonyoung’s case it was a book. She can’t even remember how she came upon this particular book - it could have been while she was browsing the shelves of her local bookshop, one of her favourite pastimes - but the fact that she did, seemed, at the time, to be a miracle. The book was Just Courage by Gary Haugen, a Harvard educated lawyer and founder of IJM (International Justice Mission), a global human rights agency. And it came into Yoonyoung’s hands at just the right time.
As a teenager Yoonyoung had had great ambitions – perhaps the greatest was to be Korea’s first female President. That ambition, in fact, led her to study Politics at Hanyang University in Seoul, one of Korea’s leading universities. She loved being at university: for the first time she was living away from her family, she was heavily involved in student politics, actively interested in the issues of the day, and generally enjoying the freedoms of student life. After several years, however, her ambitions began to change. She was becoming disenchanted with Politics, and beginning to realise that, given her background, it would be very difficult for her to get anywhere, or achieve anything worthwhile, in the world of politics. Also, she was developing an interest in international affairs and, looking across the water from Korea towards China, a curiosity about other countries. She was also beginning to realise that she wanted to do something meaningful with her life, something international, perhaps work for an international organisation like UNICEF. With that in mind she had enrolled in a Masters course in Chinese Studies at the Hanyang Graduate School of International Studies.
She graduated full of enthusiasm and willing to go anywhere in the world, even to the most difficult and dangerous countries. But despite sending off a stack of applications to various international organisations, she wasn’t able to get a job. It was a big disappointment and she spent the next four years in Seoul, teaching English in order to support herself. She enjoyed teaching, particularly interacting with the students, but it wasn’t really what she wanted to do with her life. As she put it during a recent conversation: “my heart felt empty”.
It was precisely at that point that Gary Haugen’s book Just Courage found its way into her hands. It really did seem a miracle. Here was a lawyer working internationally, partnering with local authorities to combat human trafficking and slavery, violence against women and children, and police abuse of power against the poor. Yoonyoung was inspired: all of a sudden she could see a path lighting up before her. She had found exactly what she wanted to do – and the means of doing it. She needed to study Law. For the last few years in Seoul she had almost given up on her dream of an international career; now her enthusiasm was revived, and immediately she began to look for a way forward.
Her investigations led her to Handong Global University, a Korean university with an international focus and an International Law School that prepared students to sit for US bar exams. It was exactly what she was looking for. She took the day off from work and made the five-hour train journey to Pohang, on Korea’s South Eastern coast, where the university is located. She was greatly impressed by what she saw and convinced that studying there was something she had to do. She returned to Seoul, filled out an application form and was ultimately accepted.
The course turned out to be everything she had hoped it would be and she did well, passing the District of Columbia bar exam at her first attempt. While a student she spent every vacation doing voluntary work in Cambodia together with her church friends and then, not surprisingly, developed a close friendship with a Cambodian class-mate . On graduation, she took a position as in-house counsel for a large Korean chemical company and was soon enjoying a comfortable life in Seoul. After several years, however, her Cambodian classmate, remembering Yoonyuung’s passion for South Asian countries, persuaded her to apply for a foreign attorney position that had become vacant in Rouse’s Ho Chi Minh City office in Vietnam. Initially she was reluctant to apply as, by this time, she was feeling surprisingly settled in Seoul. Still, she decided she would, and after interviews and a written test she was accepted for the position. That was five years ago. Looking back, Yoonyoung says it was the best thing she could have done: she has learned a lot and grown enormously in those five years. One of the things she loves most about Rouse and the people at Rouse is that they have given her a lot of responsibility and had absolute faith in her, trusting her totally. For that she feels enormous gratitude and is determined, in return, to do as well, and work as hard, as she can for them.
Gary Haugen’s book was certainly life changing for Yoonyoung - and the fact that it came into her hands just when it did, seemed to be a miracle. Perhaps it was; but even if miracles exist and this was one of them, it was just a starting point: Yoonyoung’s energy, ability, hard work and sense of responsibility, as well as her engaging personality, have done the rest.