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Gou Sunim: Meet the Korean Monk Whose Buddhist Path Led Her to the American Language Program at Columbia

Gou Sunim ('18SPS, American Language Program) was born in South Korea, where every Sunday during her youth her parents would take her to a kid’s Dharma class led by monks that included meditation and Buddhist practice. After she graduated high school at age 18, she was considering her next steps and thought about the happiest way to live. That’s when she decided to become a Buddhist monk. She’s now been practicing for a decade. 

“Being an ordained monk and a monk's life is not easy,” Gou says. “But I feel very valuable and happy on this path. This path reveals its subtle depth over time.”

It was this path that led Gou to the American Language Program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies , one of the oldest and most revered English language learning programs in the United States.

“Just before I left for New York from my country South Korea, I participated in an intensive meditation group,” Gou says. “I met a senior Buddhist nun there. Surprisingly, she recommended ALP.”

In January of 2018, Gou joined the American Language Program for the spring semester. 

We caught up with her to learn more about her experience at Columbia:

Why did you want to learn English? 

English is a magic tool for connection. With English, I can get information widely and deeply through the internet or books. Furthermore, regardless of country of origin, race, native language, people can connect and share with each other. This magic tool allows me to open my eyes and mind as much as possible. In Buddhism, there is a saying; Everyone we meet is a teacher. By using English, I've met many teachers in the world, and I will continue to do so.

Gou sunim 2

What was your experience like in the American Language Program & for how long did you attend?

I attended over the spring semester of 2018. My first day, It was a very very cold day. I will never forget shining, snowy Columbia. My semester was not too long, but I spent an amazing time with people. ALP has great professors. They taught not only English but also introduced us to academic knowledge. 

To my shame, I was learning English for its own sake. However, ALP introduced me to a new world. English allowed me to access new ways of thinking, and I was excited and glad to be able to expose myself to new academic knowledge. Because I learned English, I was able to access what felt like unlimited amounts of knowledge.

I was honored to learn under such capable and great professors. In addition, I used to participate in activities. I really enjoyed skating at Bryant park with friends with my ALP advisor, Jana. I keep in touch and meet with my classmates. I love my friends from ALP. 

Lastly, while in ALP, I applied for the language exchange program. My language exchange friend Jessica, who is studying at Barnard and Columbia University became my best friend. She is a junior in Barnard College now. We still meet and hang out. She helped me a lot in many ways. Especially my essay’s mistakes. Also, her Korean has improved amazingly.

Gou sunim skating at Bryant park with new ALP friends

What was your experience like learning about American culture through ALP/being in New York City?

What I really realized was the atmosphere of classes in the U.S. One of the most important elements is team consciousness: ‘Helping each other, encouraging each other and supporting each other.’  I used to live in a group life in a Buddhist community. We helped each other, trained together, and studied together, and prayed together. 

On the other hand, my school in my country was less likely to have a group program. It was more focused on my own work. When I encountered teamwork culture in classes in the U.S, I found it refreshing and awkward, but I adapted well and I learned from many aspects of it. Even though we are individuals, we cannot live alone. I’m very delighted to be in this atmosphere and am glad to have practiced it with international friends. 

Gou sunim on graduation day

At the end-of-term ceremony, you mentioned: “My dream is happiness...my dream required a tool called English.” Is there anything else you’d like to elaborate about that?

Many people are curious and ask me: “Why did you become a Buddhist nun, and why come to the U.S.?” I wanted to create my own philosophy based on the great wisdom teaching from Buddha, apply it to my life, and share it with people. If I am fluent in English, I think I have a chance to share great things with as many people as possible. 

There is no absolute answer or method, yet, English is the most known by diverse people, so I thought that being able to use English is very important for me. Especially, recently, I noticed that many young people are interested in mindfulness practice. 

For me, English can be a very useful language.  If I can share true-happiness and grow with people by using English, I can say English is my dream-tool.

What are you up to now? What are your dreams for the future?

Today, I’m a student at CUNY community college. If I finish my plan there, then I will transfer to a university. During the study period, I want to learn about diverse cultures, people and thoughts as much as possible, not only schoolwork. 

For fun, I’ve made an acrostic poem with my Buddhist name for my dream. 

(G)rowing     Regardless of my age, gender, philosophy, and situation, 

                        I’m always growing as a person. 

(O)asis           I want to be an oasis for people, where they can rest with calm 

                        and happiness 

(U)plifting      Finally, I will be a person who spiritually uplifts people. 

I will keep going for my dream. In the end, I will hopefully be able to help people in a more mature way and be able to calm down my inner self. 

Do you have any advice or anything you’d like to say to future students who might attend ALP?

Please do not study only in front of the desk. Meet many people and participate in activities if you find them meaningful. Please apply for the language exchange program. 

You may make the most amazing friends ever. Study with friends at Butler Library. Sit and feel awesome with other college students. Feel their passion. You may focus on studying magically!

Feel every moment at Columbia University. 

I cannot forget the Butler Library and Columbia's great atmosphere. 

Let's come to ALP to be the dreamer. You are next!

I might apply to Columbia university later because of this library :D

Learn more about the American Language Program at Columbia University, one of the oldest and most respected English language programs in the U.S. Programs are offered both full-time and part-time to accommodate all kinds of students.