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International Conference for Taekwondo puts NMSU in spotlight

The New Mexico State University College of Education’s recent International Academic Conference for Taekwondo (iACT) has received international attention.

Two men standing for photo
New Mexico State University International Academic Conference for Taekwondo co-organizer John Johnson of Kyung Hee University presents World Taekwondo Federation President Chungwon Choue with a packet that includes the iACT 2015 Conference Booklet, a commemorative medallion (mapae) and NMSU pin, and a cover letter thanking him and the WTF for its sponsorship ($500) and giving a summary of iACT 2015’s success. (Photo courtesy of Ron Dziwenka)

The January event has already been covered by a global Taekwondo magazine, said event organizer Ron Dziwenka, program manager for assessment in the College of Education.

“George Vitale, one of the iACT presenters, whose Ph.D. was conferred in North Korea, has written the first of a series of articles on the iACT conference and its significance, in ‘Totally TKD News,’” Dziwenka said.

“Two other internationally renowned publications – ‘Black Belt Magazine’ and ‘Taekwondo Times Magazine’ – are in the process of publishing articles on the iACT conference,” said Dziwenka, who taught and studied for 12 years at Yonsei University in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and earned his first master’s degree there. In Taekwondo, he is a Kukkiwon – certified seventh-degree black belt. “Four of our iACT presenters will be presenting at the International Association of Taekwondo Research Symposium at the World Taekwondo Championships in Russia this coming May.”

Dziwenka said the primary impact of such coverage of the iACT at NMSU will be to note that for the first time, the World Taekwondo Federation and the International Taekwondo Federation’s academic researchers and instructors came together in a spirit of mutual respect and community, and that such meetings are possible and can be fruitful.

Since early in 2014, the presidents of ITF and WTF have been working toward improving relations between the two groups. The NMSU event was an important follow-up to this. The vision of the iACT is based in part on a grassroots academic and practitioner response to the spirit of cooperation that the WTF and ITF presidents have recently initiated.

“The martial arts in Korea have been plagued since the 1940s, when Korea was freed from colonial rule, with divisiveness and internal power struggles,” Dziwenka said. “Since 1973 there have existed two major international bodies that have fought over governing Taekwondo.”

The timing of the NMSU iACT conference was significant.

“The iACT conference made history, as presenters and practitioners from both rival groups participated in both academics and physical training,” Dziwenka said. “There is no question that the spirit of cooperation was enhanced by the gracious hospitality by the staff of NMSU and the volunteers from the City of Las Cruces, the home of NMSU’s College of Education.”

Dziwenka pointed out that the WTF sponsored the iACT 2015 conference by becoming a platinum-level sponsor of the event, knowing that it would include world-class researchers as well as world champions from both ITF and WTF.

The NMSU conference also helped address a void in academic credentials facing many martial arts instructors, Dziwenka said.

With Taekwondo’s beginnings as a part of the South Korean Army’s training for both self-defense and to build esprit de corps, in the early days (1950s) it lacked sophistication and was heavily tilted toward the physical side.

“When it started to move to the civilian side it contained a sport element and was seen as a way to help instill discipline,” Dziwenka said, quoting George Vitale’s works on Taekwondo history. “Eventually, a larger focus was placed on developing the health of the nation as well as its youth, as it was perceived to be beneficial for a healthy and more positive development.”

“Today there are many universities in Korea that have degree-granting programs in Taekwondo, contributing to having a more highly educated instructor base in Korea. But in the U.S., there are few such programs in the martial arts. This has led to the void in academic credentials for many martial arts instructors,” Dziwenka said.

“The iACT 2015 conference uniquely addressed this void,” Dziwenka said. “More importantly, it has set in motion a drive to help educate martial arts instructors in areas that will not only benefit the students, but do so in a more efficient manner based upon proven academic knowledge and the science of education. It was the College of Education at New Mexico State University that made this possible.”

Dziwenka noted that the impact of the conference is bringing NMSU to the attention of the local and worldwide Taekwondo communities.

“If NMSU decides to develop a martial arts program, the event could be the impetus for a global center of Taekwondo learning, as the University of California Berkeley Martial Arts Program was for decades under Emeritus Professor Ken Min, a supporter of our conference and keynote speaker until he bowed out in early January with health issues – and has been under his successor, Professor Russell Ahn,” Dziwenka said.

The success of the iACT 2015 at NMSU has set the stage for a much bigger and more international iACT 2016 in San Francisco, and Dziwenka will again be heading the organizing committee with his long-time colleague and friend Master Alexander Choi.

“This could open the door to a martial arts program here at NMSU,” Dziwenka said.

Participants benefited from the expertise of scholars with earned doctorates from both South and North Korea, as well as from the U.S. and Mexico.

“So, in essence, NMSU gave another unique platform, a platform occupied by those educated on both sides of the Korean divide,” Dziwenka said. “The participants also benefited from other educated presenters, as well as world champions from the WTF and ITF, including two Olympic champions from South Korea, who are now running successful schools here in the U.S.”

In addition, when Dziwenka was in South Korea in December 2014 as an invited panelist for the 8th International Taekwondo Symposium (sponsored by UC Berkeley and the Taekwondo Promotion Foundation) at Taekwondowon, he made initial contacts with the officials in charge of international programs at five universities there on behalf of NMSU’s Associate Provost Cornell Menking of the Office of International and Border Programs and Director Kristian Chervenock of the Office of Education Abroad.

Meetings are now being scheduled to take place this April in Seoul as well as here in the U.S. between NMSU officials and their counterparts in South Korea, to discuss and establish various types of exchanges, Dziwenka said.