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 UT MBA Student Experiences Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami

Full-time MBA student Bruce Lee will be the first to tell you he is not the “typical” MBA candidate. While most students in the program are in their twenties with several years of corporate work experience, Lee, a native of Andong, Korea, who is in his forties, has a diverse entrepreneurial background.

Bruce LeeLee spent his early childhood in Korea before moving to the U.S. when he was in high school. After graduating from UT Knoxville in 2003 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Lee seized the opportunity to be his own boss. For three years, he owned and operated a Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins location in Knoxville, building relationships in the community.

After deciding to make a career change, he joined his family-owned business that has provided janitorial services in East Tennessee for over 20 years. He utilized the business’s strong reputation to secure lucrative community contracts.

Lee has excelled during his time in the MBA program, building friendships with his fellow students and focusing on his professional future. He entered the MBA program with an interest in healthcare, and he hopes to use his concentration in finance to secure a job in the healthcare field after graduating this December.

He has had a wealth of experiences during the program, but perhaps one of the most unique was his time on “Spring Break” earlier this year. Below is Lee’s first-hand account of his trip to Asia, where he experienced the recent earthquakes and tsunami:

My trip to Asia during spring break gave me a profound perspective into the effects of natural disasters and how countries can come together to combat devastation.  A one-way trip from Knoxville to Seoul that normally takes less than a day took me three full days due to the earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan in the middle of March. On my way to Korea, my plane turned back and was rerouted to Alaska for a day.  The earthquakes hit Japan while we were seven hours into the flight, and the Japanese were trying to figure out the extent of the damage.

Once I finally got to Tokyo on my second day, I had to sleep at Narita Airport for a night along with hundreds of other stranded passengers.  It was a sight to see; the whole airport from the ground floor to the 5th floor was overtaken by travelers who didn’t know when they’d be able to fly out of Tokyo to their homes/final destinations.  Many people had been staying at the airport since the disasters first struck.  

I was very impressed by the dignity and calmness with which Japanese authorities and workers handled the situation. They didn’t exhibit any panic or despair.  Even though the big earthquakes passed, there had been a series of small earthquakes that constantly created doubts in people’s minds and threatened their safety. I started to worry about the radioactive explosion in Fukushima and how the leakage somehow might reach us in Tokyo.  Fortunately, I was able to catch a flight out of Tokyo the next day and land safely at the Inchon International Airport in South Korea unscathed from the disaster. I was just physically exhausted and sleep-deprived, but otherwise healthy.  

Once in South Korea, I witnessed how Korean people came together to help Japan in the aftermath of the disaster.  Of course, all the airwaves were constantly deluged with news regarding Japan.  Many civic organizations came together to form a platform for donations to Japan.   Concerts were organized to wish goodwill to the victims. Celebrities with large international followings from the entertainment industry came forward and made large donations.  Government agencies contributed as well; several emergency volunteer groups were formed to go in and help Japan, such as firefighters and nuclear technicians. Korea and Japan have a long history of animosity and rivalry. However, the disaster seemed to have united the two bitter countries into one cohesive humanitarian effort to alleviate the pain and suffering.

When I was in Korea, I participated in humanitarian work myself.  For the past year or so, Korea had been affected with rampant cases of foot-and-mouth disease, which took the lives of many cattle on Korean farms. I joined 4,000 volunteers to go to the city of Andong, my birthplace, in an effort to revitalize the local economy. Andong is the city where the first case of foot-and-mouth disease occurred. Since the disease was first reported, entry into the city had been severely restricted, which created an enormous stress on the local tourism industry. This greatly affected the entire local economy, and the community needed help.

Andong is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Korea due to its rich and tradition-filled heritage in architecture, philosophy, and literature.  I, along with hundreds of other volunteers, became “buyer volunteers of new hope.” Our mission was simply to spend money in the Andong Heritage Markets, stimulating the economy.  It would not have cured the ills of the local Andong market, but we had to do something and give some hope to local merchants and farmers, even if only for one short day. I am glad that I was a part of that worthy cause.


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