In our final installment of this season’s New Students Series, we’re welcoming Jungwoo Lee, from Seoul, Republic of Korea. Jungwoo has an MBA degree from KAIST and spent the last decade as a consultant for a securities company. Jungwoo, very self-aware of his career trajectory, became dissatisfied with private sector work and how his character was changing for the worse. So he left it all behind and trekked across four continents over two years to find his calling in life—which led him to a desire to help those less fortunate. Jungwoo, we’re happy we can assist you on your educational journey so you’re better prepared to help address global inequality issues. Everybody, say “hello” to Jungwoo.

Full Name: Jungwoo Lee
Age: Sorry. I forgot.
Degree Program: Master of International Affairs
Concentration: International Finance and Economy Policy

Hometown: Seoul, Republic of Korea
Undergraduate University: Seoul National University
Undergraduate Major: Philosophy
Undergraduate Graduation Year: 1999

What’s your professional background?
After I got my MBA degree from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Seoul, I became a business consultant because convincing clients of what I believe is right and bringing about positive change was the right fit for me and I enjoyed it. I was a business consultant for ten years. I was satisfied with my consulting work because it gave me a sense of accomplishment when I completed tasks, jobs, and projects through perseverance and hard work. After ten years as a consultant at IBM, Accenture, A.T. Kearney and Deloitte Consulting, I wanted to lead an organization instead of advising others. Thus, I accepted a position with a securities company in Seoul, Korea, and worked as a strategic planning team manager for about two years.

Did you apply to SIPA to change careers or to gain experience in a career path you already have experienced in?
I want to extend my career from the private sector to the public sector. After more than ten years as a business consultant and as an employee of a securities company, I became frustrated with the logic of capitalism. I became a cold-hearted person who was obsessed with evaluating everything according to the ruthless logic of ‘cost and revenue,’ ‘efficiency and effectiveness,’ and ‘return on investment.’ Did I really want to spend the rest of my life as a capitalist warrior? I did not. So, I decided to hit the reset button and spent the next two years backpacking around the world to expand my horizons and find my calling. I visited four continents, 18 countries, 72 cities across the globe. By the end of my trip, I had expanded my knowledge of world politics and economics, history and culture, religion and philosophy. The world was even larger than I had thought, and there was much work to do both for the private and public purposes.

What was your reaction when you found out you were accepted to SIPA?
I vividly remember the midnight I found out I got into SIPA. At the one of the happiest news in my life, I opened a bottle of wine and started to sip it, listening to the background music, ‘New York, New York’ again and again.

Why did you say “yes” to SIPA?
I have much interest in both the private and public sector. I witnessed cross-border investment/business opportunities, and the grim global inequalities between the developed countries and developing countries during the world travel. I want to incubate business leads on the one hand and contribute to easing global inequalities on the other hand. I believe I can find more varied chances of harmonizing these two seemingly-different objectives in SIPA which is located in New York, the heart of the global business, finance, and multilateral organizations.

What do you most look forward to as a graduate student at SIPA?
I believe I can acquire the academic and professional framework with which I can analyze the real world; build up a global network with renowned professors/practitioners, like-minded classmates, and a vast alumni network; find various co-work opportunities in a multilateral organization in New York. In return, I hope I can find lots of chances to share my business consulting and world travel experiences with my SIPA cohort.

Do you have any apprehension about starting graduate school?
It is my first time studying abroad in my life. I got increasingly fretful and nervous as the beginning of the first semester approaches. However, I believe I could get through all the difficulties just like I did when I backpacked around the world.

What are your goals after SIPA
As of now, I cannot specify my future goal after SIPA because I truly believe SIPA, Columbia, and New York combined would afford me a lot of opportunities and chances that I cannot foresee now. Of course, I have tentative goals in my mind: start-ups, multilateral organization employment, more advanced degrees like Ph.D. or JD and so on. However, I will not cling to them rigidly. Rather, I will try to discover more possibilities while I stay at SIPA for next two years.

If you could change one small thing about your community, country or the world, what would it be?
I would like to find some way to contribute to easing the yawning global inequality. Early in my world travel, in Nepal, I spent a month as a medical volunteer in rural communities, a project organized by a Korean doctor. On my first day in the mobile clinic, I was overwhelmed by the long line of people with festering sores from unsanitary living conditions. While transporting patients, dispensing medicine, and attending to their needs, I noticed that many of the Nepalese did not have even basic health care. It was the first moment when I saw the magnitude of global inequality. In Nepal, my tour guide’s annual salary was $500, barely enough for a family to live on. In Havana and across Cuba, I met families living below the subsistence level. This misery dramatically contrasted with midtown Manhattan’s upscale department stores and Sao Paolo’s lively markets. I hope to make some difference in this grim reality even if it is small. This is why I decided to conduct academic research at Columbia SIPA on the international finance and economy, and their impacts on global inequality. Moreover, I would like to find practical solutions for easing global inequality and for securing sustainable economic growth.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.
I’d like to add some words about my world travel experiences. Three keywords define my world travel: challenge, team spirit, and diversity.

These were my challenges. I recited Diamond Sutra in Nepal and learned Spanish in Latin America. I completed a 40km bicycle ride in the Atacama Desert, finished a 60km trek of Torres del Paine in Patagonia, and climbed to the peak of an active volcano at Chile. No matter how hard these adventures seemed, once I tried courageously and worked with passion and perseverance, I completed them. I realized “whether you think you can or not, you’re right.”

This is how I learned about team spirit. I climbed Annapurna base camp and Andes mountain peaks over 4,000 meters above sea level. I explored the Amazon rainforest and completed the 40km Inca Trail. All of these treks were possible thanks to my teams I met on the road.

I appreciate diversity. I have made friends from Asia, Europe, and America, and these friendships have expanded my knowledge of other cultures, languages, histories, politics and economics. In addition, I came to have an open mind, flexibility, and tolerance.


[Photos courtesy of Jungwoo Lee]
*Note: This series is published in its original form with no editing.