Meet the Match
A Korean Sports Leader Sees a Brighter Future for Student-Athletes
Minjei Jeon was a 5-year-old girl in Busan, South Korea when her mother first enrolled her in figure skating lessons. From the skating rink, Minjei made her way to the basketball court, the soccer field, and anywhere her parents were willing to take her to fuel her thirst for sports.
“In elementary school, I was the only girl who played soccer with the boys at school,” Minjei laughs. “My parents wanted me to experience everything. My brother was the first one who told me, ‘Minjei, you know it’s not normal for you to play with the boys, right?’”
While Minjei was open to playing any sport as a girl, it was as a college student at Seoul National University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sport science and physical education, that she discovered her true passion for skiing. From the age of 20, she earned three ski instructor certifications, and spends an average of two months every winter on the slopes.
“When I’m on the slopes, it’s like I’m outside of my reality,” Minjei says. “It’s like I’m living a second life.”
Minjei’s future career in sports was cemented in 2012, when she completed her master’s degree in sport science from the same university. Soon afterward, she was hired by the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, where she has moved through different departments—budget team, international youth exchanges, international games—until landing in her current positon as a deputy manager in the department of school sports.
In 2016, the KOC merged with the Korea Council of Sport for All, resulting in a shift away from focusing only on elite sports to also working on increasing participation in “school sports,” and sport for people of all ages. As the shift occurred, Minjei became responsible for developing student-athlete culture and managing communication with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, Tourism and Ministry of Education regarding school sports policies.
At the university level, Minjei has already received strong feedback from girls, who have told her that participating in sports has helped to relieve academic stress and meet different people who they’d never meet outside of sports. It is this kind of motivation that pushes Minjei forward in her work, believing that sport can make a great impact in the lives of women.
“The challenge is many parents do not believe sports are necessary for education, especially for girls,” Minjei says “When I was in school, there no school sports clubs. Sport was seen as only for elite athletes.”
As Minjei explains, until recently in South Korea the mentality was divided between sports and academics. According to Korean Sport and Olympic Committee research, before 2016 only 1 to 2 percent of elementary and secondary school students participated in sports as student-athletes. With the establishment of a school sports department within the KSOC, that number has grown as schools offer sports clubs and classes on weekends.
On the other end, elite student-athletes face alternative realities. With no expectation of success, many are allowed to pass through the education system despite failing to perform academically.
“What this means is many athletes are limited to careers in sports after they retire or are injured,” Minjei says. “Some become coaches. But, it isn’t easy. Less than half of retired athletes can find jobs outside of sports. Still, many parents of strong athletes will tell me they only want their children to focus on sports training and not studies.”
For Minjei, collaboration between government, schools, sports federations, parents, and NGOs is fundamental for guaranteeing the best experiences for student-athletes, and establishing a new culture of balance between academics and sports. As she joined the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, she was on a mission to reform the sports system and increase participation of girl students in school sports across South Korea. With the PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, she believed the time was right to maximize on the exposure the country’s sports system would receive that year.
On her journey, Minjei learned from leaders at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates sports for nearly half a million student-athletes from 1,123 colleges and universities in the United States. The NCAA has an established history of not only developing school sports, but also providing crucial support to student-athletes in the form of professional and academic support, health and wellness, and financial assistance. Minjei’s mentor, Amy Wilson, director of inclusion for the NCAA, has spent her nearly 30-year career in higher education.
For the past decade, Amy has worked on equity issues in intercollegiate athletics and given numerous presentations on Title IX and gender equity across the United States. Her wisdom and experience combine with the years of Minjei’s own insight in developing student-athlete programs. Through this mutually-beneficial mentorship, the two women play a key role in increasing women’s sports participation and developing a student-athlete system that empowers and educates Korean students of all backgrounds and abilities.