Lessons from Space

Former EvCC Instructor Shares Her Story of Being the First Korean Astronaut

(Editor’s note: The writer of this story gathered further information on this subject, so this web edition includes additional material that was not featured in the print edition.)

Courtesy photo from KARI
Dr. Soyeon Yi ready for her launch on April 9, 2008.

In zero gravity, inside the International Space Station (ISS), Dr. Soyeon Yi learned the power of mindfulness while gazing at Earth during an 11 day mission to space in April 2008. Dr. Yi taught physics at EvCC in 2015, but now travels the globe to give inspiring talks on her experience.

Beating 36,000 other applicants in a contest by the South Korean government and hosted by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Yi and one other finalist, Ko San, were sent to Russia to train as astronauts. Originally part of the back up crew, Yi was selected to launch into space to conduct various experiments on insects, plants and herself.  Being in her final year of study for a PhD in Biosystems at KAIST, Yi was at first hesitant to compete for a chance to go to space because it could interfere with the completion of her program. “People tend to easily overlook troubles and hardships that successful people had to deal with to become who they are,” Yi said during a talk at Google on April 22, 2019.

Beating the odds, Yi earned both her doctorate and title of First Korean in Space. Aboard the Soyuz TMA-12, Yi and two Russian cosmonauts launched into space on April 8, 2008. Her most challenging of experiments involved educational materials that would be used later in elementary school classrooms. Trying to explain science in simple terms, as if she were the teacher to young children, she knew how important it was to get everything right.

Former colleague and current EvCC instructor Kristine Washburn shared insight to Yi’s time at the college. Washburn described Yi as driven, compassionate and open-minded. “When she learned that many of her students balanced jobs and families and struggled with issues of poverty and mental health, she adjusted her teaching and her demeanor to be more helpful,” Washburn recalled.  According to Washburn, Yi found the commute from her home in Puyallup to EvCC to be too much, so she left in order to work closer to home. “She has the credentials to walk into a four-year university and get a job immediately, but she appreciates the mission and vision behind community colleges and is drawn to them,” Washburn said.

Dr. Yi at Stanwood Performing Arts auditorium on Nov. 23 entertaining the crowd with stories from her training and flight to space.

Yi had to learn to speak Russian to prepare for her mission, which she noted to be her biggest challenge during training. She also chose to improve her English while she studied for her MBA at UC Berkeley.
Referring directly to EvCC international students, Yi said, “We, international students are studying in foreign countries only because we believe we can get more or better education than the place we have been before. Then, we should make more effort to get more and better ones, whether it is education or future career opportunities.” Yi also stressed the importance of overcoming any challenges you might face along the way.

Learning many lessons in her life thus far, Yi shared her top three. First is that humans need interaction with others to thrive, so be good to one another. The second is to be grateful for what you have and the paths that paved your way, even before your birth. Third is that nothing comes for free; you either pay now or pay later.

“If you feel lost or don’t know what to do, not only in college but also after the college, it’s ok. I was exactly like you and no one can be sure about their future and cannot have clear answers for their future career,” Yi advised. “Do your best to handle the thing right in front of you now. All the great things should be done from small little things to start, and once you just do your best, it [will] always be paid back, even if you don’t know exactly when and how.”

Part Two – Mindfulness from Weightlessness

Hundreds were seated in the Stanwood High School Performing Arts Center Saturday night, waiting to hear from the first and only Korean astronaut. The free event, organized by Sno-Isle Centers in partnership with Stanwood Camano Community Resource Center and the city of Stanwood, brought two hours of entertainment to young and old alike.  The crowd was graced with original piano music by Camano Island local composer Anté Svircic. The concluding song to kick off the evening, “To the Moon and Beyond”, was recently written by Svircic in honor of Yi.

Ken Harvey, Communications Director for Sno-Isle Libraries, introduced Yi to the sold-out audience, as she entered the stage wearing her astronaut uniform. Her demeanor was calm as she jumped into her story of a journey; not only to space, but of what she learned in the processes and procedures that would mold her existence.  Her talk, titled Mindfulness from Weightlessness, took the audience through a timeline of events, starting with her birthplace in Gwangju, to her upbringing and mindset, and in the selection process that resulted in her becoming an astronaut.

Yi’s wit and wisdom had the crowd smiling, laughing and wiping away tears at times. A common theme in her address was to be grateful for what you have, even if it is not what you think you want or need.
“I’m the kind of person to make every situation better because it keeps me calm,” Yi noted of her experiences.  Yi identified two leisurely moments in space as being her favorites; the first being a high kick while floating in air.  “I really wanted to be the flight king like Bruce Lee,” she said, noting that zero gravity makes it easy to do.

Her second favorite moment was during a farewell gathering on her last night, in which she was captured on film, singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” as her ponytail bounced on top of her head and fellow crew members listened on.  In concluding the talk, Yi answered audience questions, including what she would go back and tell herself, knowing what she knows now.

“Right after my flight, almost every day I could only sleep one to two hours. I couldn’t smile because I was too tired,” Yi recalled, at the time thinking to herself, “I don’t know if I could do better things than being the first astronaut… people expected me to do something big.” Yi realized later, “All things always pass. I cannot make everyone like me, and I cannot make everyone happy.”
If she could go back to her days after she returned, Yi said she would tell herself, “Hang in there, it’s going to be ok.”

The evening concluded with a short presentation by Christine Russell, Program & Event Coordinator for Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano. 

 “I really wanted to give back to this community,” Russell said, as she described what the resource center does and what brought her to planning the event. Russell thanked retired Boeing employee Betty Smith for collaborating with her and Yi in planning the event which included STEM activities. Smith is known to be passionate about encouraging women in STEM roles, especially involving aerospace engineering.

Savanna Eickerman
(From left to right) Christine Russell, Betty Smith, Dr. Soyeon Yi, and Val Paul Taylor, gather around on stage at Stanwood High School Performing Arts Center as Dr. Yi accepts the gift of a framed copy of Val Paul Taylor’s painting.

Yi was presented with a framed copy of an original painting by Camano Island local artist Val Paul Taylor, depicting the astronaut floating in space with the moon and ISS behind her. Taylor was commissioned in October by Russell to complete the painting for presentation at the talk. 

When Yi saw the painting, smiling she said, “It’s so cool. Wow.” She thanked Taylor for the surprise. 

Russell then welcomed 11-year-old Ramona Reid to the stage, introducing her as the apprentice in coordinating the event. Russell then removed a golden bee pin from her blazer and presented it to Reid. 

The bee pin would signify as a reminder to Reid to, “bee” kind, inspired, courageous, challenged, at times bored,  and to always be herself. Russell told Reid that even if she lost the pin, that the message would still be in her heart.