Dongyoun Cho MC/MPA 2016 remembers the first time she felt a desire to think of others before herself.

By Rebecca Wickel
April 25, 2016


“Why would you ever enter the army?” 

Dongyoun Cho MC/MPA 2016 has had to answer this question many times. Her decision to become a military officer in her native South Korea was uncommon in 2000. But for Cho, attending the Military Academy was one of the few avenues to an education.

At age 13, Cho was forced to drop out of junior high school due to difficult family circumstances. While her parents were in prison following the collapse of their business just ahead of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, she worked odd jobs to provide for her younger brother. This is the first time she remembers feeling a strong desire to think of others before herself.

Throughout her adult life Cho has not lost this passion for service. She has served 11 years in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, and recently became one of the youngest female officers to be promoted to major. Cho says coming to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) after serving in the military was a natural next step.  

“When I was a company commander, under my command there were 180 soldiers. I wanted to contribute to the security environment because I listened to their stories, and I heard about their difficulties,” she said. “In a way, a lot of events and experiences led me to go to the public sector. I think it was inevitable.”

Cho’s work in Iraq as part of peacekeeping operations further solidified her decision to work in public service. She met women and children without access to food and water, which forced her to confront the underlying structures that contribute to conflict. She then decided she wanted to learn more about other the broader context surrounding international aid and peacekeeping. 

HKS was an obvious fit, Cho said. Studying public policy in an academic community that welcomes students of diverse backgrounds offered her the opportunity to learn more than she could anywhere else.

“I was surprised by not only the faculty members, but by my colleagues,” Cho said. “There are so many diverse people in just one classroom. You can talk to anyone and hear a different background, hear entirely different thoughts. In my one year at HKS, I broadened my perspective beyond the military." 

Before enrolling at the school, Cho said she saw peacekeeping and international relations exclusively through the lens of military exercises and security concerns. Now, she says she sees issues holistically, and looks to continue learning.

“I have realized what my weaknesses are, so I know what I want to continue to learn,” she said. “This is only my starting point of study. I have so much to learn at work, based on my experience at HKS.”

There will likely be many opportunities for Cho to learn on the job. She is under consideration for a position at the United Nations regarding disarmament affairs. She welcomes the opportunity to move to New York before continuing her military service in Korea. 

“I want to teach my children how different the world can be than what they already know,” she said. “As a parent, as a military officer, as a woman, I am so happy to be able to bring back what I have learned about the world to share with them.”