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Nineteen elite South Korean athletes — from Olympic gold medalists to world champions — will spend the next few months at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, learning skills to become coaches and international sports ambassadors.
The retired athletes also will improve their English language, learn sports marketing, pick up coaching techniques and work in their area of athletic expertise as part of the Next Generation Sports Talent (NEST) program.
In its fifth year, NEST is designed to equip participants with tools necessary for an athletic-related career. It is sponsored by the South Korean government in partnership with the UT College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences; the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA); the English Language Institute and national and international sports governing bodies.
The athletes are paired with UT students who serve as their peer mentors. This part of the program is especially meaningful because it gives NEST students the opportunity to make new friends who will help them assimilate, said current NEST student Jeongho Hong. Hong, 38, won Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals in handball at the 1992 Barcelona games, 1996 Atlanta games and 2008 Beijing games, respectively.
"Maybe we can teach each other our country's culture, customs and languages," said Hong, who retired last year after playing professionally in Japan, Denmark and Norway. "It's important because there's so much about each other we don't know."
UT competed against five other U.S. institutions to house this program.
"As we continue to educate, develop and prepare our students for a changing global economy, the NEST-UT partnership allows both parties to explore and share cultures," said NEST director Fritz Polite. "It is a one-of-a-kind program and is extremely beneficial for both countries."
Based on feedback from previous NEST students, officials this year are expanding the program from four to seven months. Instead of leaving in December, students will now stay through March 2013.
"They agreed that they enjoyed the experience so much but they felt it was too short," Polite said. "We want to do a little bit more along the lines of cultural exchange with other (American) students."
Extending the time also would give NEST students exposure to more sports. Previously, students could participate only in the UT football season. Now, they'll experience basketball, track and soccer.
"Working with the other teams gives them a fuller experience," Polite said. NEST for the first time has a graduate advisor, a previous NEST student named Kyun Suk Kim who will serve as a mentor to the students.
Also new this year: Visiting assistant professor Seungyup Lim will research the impact of the NEST program and best practices that officials can use to further improve the initiative. Kim, who attended UT as a doctoral student before returning to South Korea to teach, also will look into the possibility of expanding the program.
For current NEST student Chunsa Byun, 24, the program is already producing results. Being at UT has fueled the desire to stay longer at the university and learn even more after the NEST program ends.
"I have no fear of something new," said Byun, who set the world record in the 1000-meter speed-skating short track during the 2003 World Junior Championships.
Byun said her American counterparts have shown her that "Americans have a strong sense of pride. They're very considerate of others."