Learning about Korea off the book, from one who knows

West Michigan native shares his experiences with Korean culture

Derek Stelma talks with students at Kenowa Hills High School about his times in South and North Korea

Born and raised in West Michigan, where he made his way through the Grandville school system, Derek Stelma moved to Seoul, Korea in 2008 to pursue a career in the entertainment and broadcast industry as an actor and reporter.

Now, once a year, he makes a trip back to Grand Rapids to share the story of his experiences abroad.

As an added bonus, Stelma’s trip back to the States includes a visit with his childhood friend and Kenowa Hills High School history teacher Troy VanValkenburg. It’s a win-win for them, giving both a chance to touch base and VanValkenburg’s students an opportunity to learn from Stelma about Korean culture, history and current affairs.

“We met in elementary school and through the power of social media, we’ve been able to stay connected over the years,” VanValkenburg said. “He brings a very interesting lesson for my students every year.”

Before VanValkenburg covers the Korean War in his history class, Stelma’s presentation introduces the material to students using real-life experiences to get his point across, VanValkenburg said.

“It’s easy for me to say that I have a friend who has experienced the things he has when we are talking in class, but it’s another thing to have someone with firsthand experiences,” VanValkenburg said. “We cover so many topics that some things get lost in translation without the real experience.”

Derek Stelma works with NGOs in Korea as a goodwill ambassador for Feed the Children

Focusing on the Positives

Stelma has held several positions in Korean media. They include a stint at “What’s the Buzz” on Korea Today, a panelist on the TV show “Bring it On,” and the host of “Hello Seongnam,” as well as several other guest appearances.

A large portion of Stelma’s recent discussion with Kenowa students focused on Korean NGOs, non-profit organizations that operate independently of any government addressing a social or political issue.Stelma works as a goodwill ambassador for Feed the Children in Korea.

“NGOs don’t get as much attention as they should for all of the good work that they are doing,” Stelma told VanValkenburg’s ninth-graders. “A lot of people focus only on the negative things they hear about Korea, not the good things.”

Having been to North Korea as part of his work with NGOs, Stelma talked on the political tension between North and South Korea and what he foresees moving forward, as well as common misconceptions about Korea and the values of Korean culture.

“No one can know for sure where we’re headed, but I’m optimistic about the future,” he said. “It’s important to stay informed and look at the whole picture.”

Teacher Troy VanValkenburg prompts questions during Derek Stelma’s presentation

Students Could Relate

The topics Stelma covered sparked the interest of student Jacob Dengate.

“Having another point of view was such a great thing to have,” Jacob said. “I learned so many things about not only his experiences with North Korea, but also what countries outside of North Korea do for North Korea, such as donating rice and water to citizens.”

The passion for his work and the experiences that Stelma shared connected things learned in class to the real world, said Melanie Vail.

“I usually like having guest speakers because we get to learn about the history of something we did not know about,” she said. “In my opinion, Mr. Derek Stelma was by far one of the best guest speakers. The way he explained things and how he was fighting for a cause that he truly cared about and was very passionate about were great.”

Classroom Follow-up

After Stelma’s presentation, VanValkenburg said he would incorporate curriculum-required history, culture, politics and current events based on the experiences that Stelma shared.

“He told the class all about the culture of the Koreas, which was unknown to me and I’m sure most of the other students, I’m excited to learn more,” student Lucy Jennette said.

Stelma said he values the time he gets to spend with students who are in the shoes he once filled, now that he has wisdom to pass on.

“Getting to answer questions and spark debate in a classroom setting is very rewarding,” Stelma said. “Korea is a country of rich history that I am lucky to be able to share.”

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Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit. Read Hannah's full bio or email Hannah.

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