Faculty Profile: Nahmi Kim Wagner

By Joseph Chong ’98


When Nahmi Kim Wagner, the head preceptor of the Korean language program at Harvard, sought her first teaching job, she was flatly rejected. Although she was born in Korea in 1923, she moved to Japan with her family when she was three and went to the government public school there. After her formal education, she was obligated by the Japanese government to teach for a few years, but Japanese schools repeatedly denied her a teaching position. "Just because I was a Korean, I got rejected," she says shaking her head. "I couldn’t believe that educators had this kind of attitude!" It was only later, through a circuitous route full of obstacles like this one, that she would come to Harvard and help establish its Korean language program.

In 1951, when she was 31, Mrs. Wagner moved to the city of Pusan in Korea, and she did not know how to speak Korean. It was the time of the Korean War, and she lived relatively isolated from others because everyone was struggling so hard just to survive. "I had seen so much suffering [in Pusan]," she says, "I just couldn’t bear it anymore." So she moved to Seoul, and only there did she begin to learn basic conversational Korean. Because of her Japanese language skills, she was hired to teach Japanese to foreigners through a program sponsored by the University of Maryland. Soon, she was offered tutoring jobs and a position broadcasting in Japanese for a radio program.

Mrs. Wagner came to the United States in 1958 when Harvard began to collect Korean literature at the Harvard-Yenching library. "They decided I was a good person to have on staff at the library," she says. Then she adds, "Even though they needed someone who spoke Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, I really only had a strong grasp on Japanese." It was supposed to be a temporary job. In 1960, when Professor Edward Wagner (whom Mrs. Wagner later married) asked her to stay and help him teach Korean language courses, she was at first skeptical. "I said so," she notes. "I told him, ‘I can’t speak Korean yet.’" But she later reconsidered, and answered in a statement that is indicative of her life philosophy: "Okay, maybe I’ll try it."

"I had to study very hard, like I was learning Korean from the very beginning," Mrs. Wagner explains. "I had never had a formal education [in Korean]. But when you are given a job, you have to know what you are doing very well. I needed to learn every single word, over and over again. I studied desperately." It took her years and years of studying to learn Korean and English. She recognized that, to teach Korean, she had to be able to pronounce it properly, and so she returned each summer to Korea. "I listened to people really, really carefully," she explains. "I just practiced and practiced."

At first Mrs. Wagner acted as her husband’s assistant as he taught graduate students in a very small program. Thinking back she remembers that, "Sometimes we only had one student, but we still gave the course." Eventually, more and more Korean students came to Harvard, and there was a need for undergraduate language courses. The lack of Korean texts posed a serious problem. "There weren’t any, really," she says. "Each time I used one I was disappointed. So I decided to write my own." Now the Korean language and history programs at Harvard have greatly expanded. There are courses that students can take for all four years, ending in history and literature courses that are very intensive. Now the introductory language course, Korean Ba, attracts over sixty undergraduates a year. These students use the textbook that Mrs. Wagner developed.

The initiative that Mrs. Wagner showed in creating a textbook is evident throughout her life. She admires people who are always trying to learn more and pursue new areas—especially older people. "When people become 60 or 70, they start to give up," she says. "I want to keep improving myself until the day I die." When Mrs. Wagner was 51, a student of hers got her interested in Korean ceramics. With characteristic diligence, she started to take pottery lessons and studied the history of Korean pottery. She has since displayed her own pottery in exhibitions and has continued to improve her art.

"I admire people with excellent skill," Mrs. Wagner says. "I think it is important to be better than anyone else at what you do." She believes that superior skill is the key to overcoming racial prejudice. "If you are so very good at what you do, people cannot help but recognize you as such." Certainly, in her own life, this has been true. She has neither a masters degree nor a Ph.D., and yet she was asked by the University to become a senior preceptor. "They saw me doing my job properly and conscientiously. I never asked for or thought about getting a higher position."

However, she recognizes that sometimes she is too hard on people, and she says that she is often called a perfectionist by those she works with. She discourages the instructors she works with to take shortcuts when grading papers. "When my staff tries to take the easy way, I get very upset. I don’t understand why. I demand other people to be perfect." But she also frowns upon people who are so ambitious to the point where they will harm others. When people who are undeserving become obsessed, she explains, they try to reach beyond their means. "If you are good enough and honest, people will recognize you," she says.

This year will be Mrs. Wagner’s last at Harvard. After she retires, she is going to pursue pottery with great fervor. "I am over 70, but I still have some years left. I am going to spend the rest of my life making something beautiful with my hands ."

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