In the basement of St. Mary Magdalene Church on Milwaukee’s south side, Cathie Ryou gathers five young children of Korean decent for their regular Bible lesson. Today’s topic: baptism and family. She has the students write the names of their family members on leaves and glue them to a tree. Some of the students write the names in Korean, the others in English.
Since 2006, through Bible and language classes, Ryou has guided the children through the basics of balancing their lives between Korean and American cultures.
“I just try to think of little things to put into my lesson to try and make the students feel more comfortable,” Ryou said. “I try to incorporate as much of the Korean culture as possible. It’s difficult sometimes to transition into that but I try to do that as much as possible.”
Going between both worlds isn’t new to the 24-year-old who wasn’t exposed to English on a regular basis, outside of television, until she went to school as a child in Chicago, where her family lived at the time.
Ryou said her English as a Second Language teacher helped her a lot.
“She was well into the different Asian cultures and she was interested in that,” Ryou said. “She helped me learn English a lot faster than what I would have.”
Ryou empathizes with children having trouble managing both worlds.
“I personally went through a difficult time when I was little because I had to switch back and forth between my Korean culture here at home … transitioning from school back to the Korean culture,” Ryou said.
One thing that helped her was going through this difficult experience with others, she said.
“Going through that with people that I like, love and know and hangout (with) on like a daily basis definitely helped,” she said.
Ryou does more than help out with the Bible study and English language class. She plays the organ for the choir, and is involved with parish holiday celebrations. This kind of interaction has created a bond between her and the children.
“I sometimes think of them as my kids,” she said. “I feel responsible to teach them and transition them into the Korean American way of life.”
In 2010, Ryou took a break from teaching the language class at her church to focus on her student teaching and she continued to teach the Bible class and play the organ at Mass.
“I had a really hard time putting together lesson plans for students that I went to student teach and creating lessons for the church, so it just felt very overwhelming at times,” she said about her workload.
Even playing the organ became a challenge.
“There are songs that change every weekend and so just having that time to practice and go through the songs with my parents, they’re on the choir, and talking to the choir manager to see what songs that I need to play,” Ryou said. She added that being organized helped her get through those times.
Ryou graduated from UW-Milwaukee with her teaching license in December of that year, and has been looking for job in a school district. She currently is a substitute teacher for the Menomonee Falls district and continues to do work at the parish.
Ryou said her parents modeled community service to her. Their involvement with the parish and assisting members outside the church influenced her decision to help others.
“They put a lot of time and effort, especially with the grandmas, like if they need rides to places. And hearing people whenever they need someone to talk to. They’re just very dedicated people to the church,” Ryou said. “I guess I followed in their footsteps.”
Ryou was recognized by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee last November when she was awarded the the John Paul II Youth Award.
“I guess I didn’t realize I have been doing so much at church,” Ryou said. “This was just something that I’ve been doing every weekend and so I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. Like, I’ve made an impact on the students’ lives and the parents’ lives by helping them…. I guess it really surprised me recently because I’ve gotten all that recognition from it.”
Ryou hopes that her unique experience teaching will lead to a permanent position. She believes her work with multicultural groups as well as the Korean community will increase her chances.
“Even though I’m Korean, here I still have to understand my culture and the American culture so I can get them (the students) in both worlds,” Ryou says. “Same with the student teaching that I’ve done in the past, getting students to bring their culture in (the classroom) to make sure other students understand them.”