A journey marked by curiosity and resilience

From a small rural town in Korea to the academic hallways of Massey University, HeyJoung Choi’s story is inspirational. Her journey underscores the might of relentless curiosity, the drive for continuous learning, and the support of loved ones in charting a unique life journey.

Passionate drive towards global learning

Carolyn Young

Born and raised as the youngest among four siblings, HeyJoung was not initially inclined towards academic pursuits. She reminisced, “Girls were often not expected to be successful in an academic way.” While she wasn’t drawn to scholarly endeavours, her innate curiosity constantly tugged at her. “I was always a curious kind of person,” she says, “curiosity drove me to study.” This spark would take her to different parts of the world, pushing her boundaries every step of the way.

As she found her feet in the world of learning, HeyJoung was drawn more towards art, writing, and physical education. It wasn’t until high school that she delved into studies, admitting, “That’s the first time I thought studying is not too bad.”

While her roots lay deep in Korean soil, her dreams extended beyond the horizon. After a stint in fine arts, HeyJoung realised she had to venture out to chase her dreams. Japan was her first stop.

“My main idea was to go to Japan, study the Japanese language and literature, and maybe go to China, learn a little bit of Chinese, and then go to America,” she shares. Her grand vision was to bridge the art worlds of the East and the West, to be a mediator of cultures and aesthetics.

But life had different plans. A chance trip to Auckland in 1999 for English studies led her to cross paths with her future husband. She believed it would be a short stint, but destiny threw her a curveball in the form of love. She fondly recalled meeting her husband in Japan, whom she initially knew from Auckland, and soon, they began their journey together. Their union prompted several relocations – from Tokyo, where she finished her Master’s degree and commenced a research fellowship, to Korea, where they had their first daughter and settled in New Zealand in 2006.
Triumph over barriers

Over the next few years, HeyJoung became a mother of three. Recounting her early days in New Zealand in 2006, she mentioned a challenge that seemed impossible at the time: the English language. “When I came to New Zealand, I couldn’t speak English.” But HeyJoung’s unyielding spirit shone through. Not only did she pick up the language, but she also mastered it with the help of her children. She often repeated sentences to adults that she practised with her kids, chuckling, “My children were good teachers.”

HeyJoung’s association with Massey University began in 2010 as a language advisor for Korean students. HeyJoung’s dedication and skills soon saw her rise to become a Programme Coordinator.

With every move, HeyJoung adapted, often driven by her thirst for knowledge. Her academic journey resumed in 2013; she juggled her profession, education, and family responsibilities over nine challenging years. Managing work, studies, and a household with three teenagers was no easy feat. Yet, with support from her family and a household routine where even her children played their part, HeyJoung found the perfect balance to thrive in every role she embraced.

The most captivating part of her programme? “Learning Chinese through English but translating it into Korean,” she explains. It wasn’t just about the linguistic gymnastics but about understanding the deep cultural intricacies involved. Her bachelor’s core paper,
Tūrangawaewae: Identity & Belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand, allowed her to explore what it means to be a Kiwi, leading her to study the Māori language and its culture. 

An academic career and a passion for education

HeyJoung’s tireless efforts to bridge the gap between local and international students didn’t go unnoticed. In 2015, HeyJoung introduced an innovative internship programme for international students at Massey. She recognised the immense potential such an opportunity could provide for Asian students in the competitive job market back home. The initiative has benefitted the students and the local community, fostering intercultural understanding.

“At the end of the programme, you could see from their faces how much they had grown,” she says, a note of pride evident in her voice. HeyJoung was recognised with the Staff Recognition Award for Innovation at PaCE for her tireless efforts in 2019.

When asked where she spends her spare time, “In front of a desk studying something new? Not always,” she chuckles. “Most weekends, I’m volunteering.” She speaks of a recent community initiative, a Repair Café, where people bring in broken items to be mended by volunteers. “That’s once a month, and it feels wonderful to give back.”

Her passion for education also led her to teach at the Palmerston North Korean school. “It’s important for second and third-generation Korean children to maintain a connection with their heritage,” she emphasises. While she may not teach there anymore due to her packed schedule, she aids in its operation.

Furthermore, HeyJoung had been involved in an inspiring venture called the Children’s University. Massey initiated a pilot programme in 2021, which officially started in 2022. “The programme seeks support from local schools and community organisations. It’s an endeavour close to my heart,” she shares, hoping that more individuals and institutions would rally behind this noble cause.

A lifelong learning philosophy
Looking back, what drives HeyJoung’s insatiable hunger for knowledge and her relentless pursuit of excellence? HeyJoung holds onto a profound kīwaha that aptly encapsulates her life’s philosophy, “Mai i te kōpae ki te urupā, tātou ako tonu ai - From the cradle to the grave, we are forever learning.”

To students, HeyJoung’s advice resonates with her life’s philosophy: pursue education out of passion, not just for career advancement. She embodies the idea that learning is a lifelong journey and urges everyone to stay updated and be curious.