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SM Universe prepares to accept foreign students under Hallyu visa

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Students practice their runway walking at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]
Students practice their runway walking at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

With the Hallyu visa slated to start receiving applications in June, SM Universe is preparing to enroll more foreigners in its academy under the visa.

At SM Universe on March 28, ten 16-year-old students were practicing their runway walks in a practice room on the second floor of the academy. With high hopes of one day becoming a famous model, the students have been training at SM Universe since March.

Public speaking classes are up next on the list because becoming an eloquent speaker is also important for anyone that might appear on TV.

All of this happens at SM Universe, a training center located in Daechi-dong of Gangnam District, southern Seoul, an area known as the hub of Korea’s private education. Founded in April last year by K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment, it offers a three-year curriculum like any middle and high school and teaches singing, dancing, modeling, acting and music composing to students who want to become stars.

SM Universe is also open to foreigners, but getting admitted has been difficult due to visa obstacles.

Currently, the academy requires foreigners to have a legal visa and to drop out of regular school, which is a requirement to attend its classes that are held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.(KST) on weekdays. Realistically, this has made it hard for international students because staying in school is a requirement for any relevant visas.

But SM Universe says it plans to admit more international students when the Hallyu visa is created. Open for applications in June, the visa will allow a maximum two-year stay for teenagers who register at local performing arts academies — including SM Universe.

But as students are required to drop out of school, SM Entertainment isn’t the only company that is behind the academy’s education.

Students sit in an acting class offered at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]
Students sit in an acting class offered at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

Jongro Academy, one of Korea’s most famous cram schools to prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test, will provide basic education for the students.

Acknowledging that dropping out can be a risky choice because not everyone can successfully debut, students also study to achieve high school equivalency credentials to prepare them for whatever the future may have in store.

“We help students earn high school equivalency credentials because we think we should be responsible for guaranteeing at least the minimum educational qualification for students, even for students that decide to stop pursuing their dreams,” Hong Jong-hwa, the dean of SM Universe, said.

For foreign students, the institution plans to prepare them for the General Educational Development (GED) Test, to earn them a high school equivalency credential. SAT preparation classes are also going to be offered.

For the Korean students already enrolled at SM Universe, three hours in the morning are allocated for Korean, English, math and history classes every day to prepare them for the Korean GED.

Students are taught by teachers at Jongro Academy’s Gangnam-Daechi branch and have to take quizzes, mid-terms and finals just like a normal school.

“It was hard adjusting to life at normal schools, and I spent a lot of time worrying about my future,” one student at SM Universe said. “But here, I like that I don’t have to waste my time.”

Students learn how to compose music at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]
Students learn how to compose music at SM Universe. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

From 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.(KST), students then sit in classes that teach them singing, dancing, acting and modeling. Visiting the academy last week, a group of students was busy practicing basic dance steps, while another class was composing their own music and getting feedback from the instructors.

Students are allowed to stay after school until as late as 9 p.m. to practice what they want.

Despite SM Entertainment’s bold plans to create the next generation of stars, the academy’s expensive fees of $1,680 to $1,980 (2.2 to 2.6 million won) a month have been criticized.

“The students aren’t official trainees, but we are not an institution that blindly accepts everyone or even people that don’t have high chances of achieving their dreams,” said Hong. “We plan to help create artists and properly teach them academics, how to become a better person and in-depth singing and dancing skills.”

BY LEE HOO-YEON, LEE TAE-HEE [lee.taehee2@joongang.co.kr]