Marion native teaches abroad, wins half-marathon

Dec 6, 2019

SOUTH KOREA — Marion’s Julia O’Rourke considers herself a “home body” but that didn’t stop her from traveling half-way around the world to start her career in education, and “accidentally” win a half marathon.

O’Rourke attended Tabor Academy, then graduated from Bowdoin College in May with a degree in English and education, and received a Fulbright Fellowship for a year-long teaching program in South Korea from July 2019 to July 2020. 

She now lives with a host family in Mokpo, and teaches English at a high school.

O’Rourke said there are many differences between Korean and American schools, but principal amongst them are Korea’s emphasis on standardized testing, and afterschool tutoring.

In Korea, the SATs are taken so seriously that the majority of public transportation is shut down on testing days, so that students aren’t disturbed by noise during the listening portion of the test.

There is also a strong emphasis on tutoring programs called “hagwon.” There are different hagwon programs for each subject, and some students take multiple sessions per week.

“It’s pretty much the norm, so long as one can afford it, to go to hagwon,” O’Rourke said. She added that kids often start the programs at a young age, and that they offer “a crazy workload for really young students.”

A curious parent once asked O’Rourke how American students can get ahead without such programs.  She explained that students have the option to take advanced placement courses, and teachers are available to meet before or after class.

While O’Rourke has developed some knowledge of Korean, she says that most of her students already have a strong English background, and that she teaches in her first language. She said she benefits from the help of a Korean-speaking co-teacher, who helps clarify any possible misunderstandings between her and her students.

In her four years at Tabor Academy, O’Rourke ran cross country and track, and continued her running career into college. At Bowdoin, she was the cross country, indoor, and outdoor track captain in her junior and senior year. She also set a school record for her 17:35 5K on a flat track in her senior year.

In college, running had been a major social outlet for her, in addition to a competitive pursuit, and she said it was difficult to not have that in her new teaching position in Korea. “I was really adjusting on all levels,” she said.

In September, she started running again, but for different reasons. “Running has gone from something I did socially and competitively, to something I do to get alone time, and recharge,” she explained. 

O’Rourke said she now uses running to clear her head after a long day at work.

After getting back in the habit of running, she decided to compete in a half-marathon in the City of Suncheon, based on a recommendation from one of her friends in the Fulbright program.

“I was having the best time in this race,” O’Rourke said, explaining that she was really just running for fun, since she hadn’t trained as seriously as she did in college.

With distances measured in kilometers instead of miles, O’Rourke wasn’t sure of just how good her pace was throughout the race, and although she didn’t realize it when she crossed the finish line, her time of 1:30:36.71 was enough to win first place in the women’s division and qualify for the New York Marathon.

“I accidentally won [the race]” she explained.

She said that her accidental victory taught her that she is capable of more than she once thought, and that her running career didn’t have to end after college.

Prior to making the move to Mokpo, O’Rourke said she was nervous about being separated from friends and family.

Her mother actually taught English in Austria after her college years, and gave her apprehensive daughter the same advice that her mother gave her “Marion will be exactly the same when you come back.”

With this in mind, O’Rourke decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and travel abroad.

“It was just so scary to me to go to the other side of the world,” she said. But in the end she gained confidence in herself and learned that “people are not actually that different, even in a far-away country.

While she has enjoyed teaching, she said that her long-term career goal is to work as a school counselor of some sort, and help with college admissions, although she is still open to other possibilities.