Robert and Linda Shank are preparing to return for another semester teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The couple have been working in North Korea with sponsorship from the Global Mission and Service program of the Church of the Brethren.
This past semester at PUST has been a good one for the Shanks, who express gratitude for the unique opportunity. The North Koreans “are excellent hosts,” said Linda, in an interview held when the couple stopped by the church’s General Offices in Elgin, Ill., last month. They were in the US for a Christmas leave.
Robert Shank, who is dean of the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences at PUST, has taught three courses: a biotechnology course for graduate students, a plant breeding course for graduate students, and a botany course for undergraduates. Linda Shank is an adjunct English teacher, assisting students with research projects and providing an English clinic for graduate students as well as “listening sessions” to help students learn verbal English in order to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Classes at PUST are taught in English and students enter the English department when they first enroll, and then move on to classes in their major areas.
The Shanks list a number of accomplishments of their work at PUST: a marked increase in the level of trust they experience, increasing development of good relationships with the school administration, all reflected in Robert’s promotion to dean of his department and the extra levels of responsibility that carries. One particular accomplishment has been providing 400 microscope slides of plants and other organisms for PUST, provided with help from McPherson (Kan.) College.
A highlight of the past semester has been the students with whom the Shanks work. Smiles brightened their faces as the couple spoke of the joys of teaching a group of outstanding young men. For example, the eight graduate students the Shanks have related to since they started at the university, three now doing graduate study in plant breeding and five in genetic engineering. In another example, the botany student who kept saying, “I want to know exactly,” pushing Robert to expand his own knowledge of the subject and to invite more input from the class. And then there are the students who routinely illustrate their lab exercises with elaborate artistic drawings, where students in other countries would be content with providing a rough sketch.
A special memory from the Fall are the birthday parties students threw for Robert and Linda–on very slim student budgets, even somehow finding a bouquet of fresh flowers in mid-November. Birthdays are celebrated “with gusto” in North Korea, the Shanks said. They explained, “Here’s how you have a birthday party with no money”: for one party, the students put up pictures of flowers downloaded from the Internet, and used cut-outs from shiny red foil wrapping for the decorations.
Find out more about Robert and Linda Shank’s work at PUST at www.brethren.org/partners/northkorea