“Forming a Better World”: One Johnnie on Law and the Liberal Arts

November 29, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Hyun Jai Oh
Hyun Jai Oh (A19) is interested in the intersection of philosophy and law and was recently accepted to one of the top 10 law schools in the United States. 

“I didn’t really think about becoming a lawyer before I joined the Korean army after my sophomore year,” says Hyun Jai Oh (A19).

Oh, an international student, returned to St. John’s in 2017 after finishing two years of mandatory military service in his native South Korea. Earlier this fall, he was accepted into law school at the University of Virginia, one of the top ten law schools in the country.

“I didn’t have a plan of what I wanted to do after St. John’s, but after having some experience in the military, I started to think that studying philosophy can be related to studying law,” he says.

Oh first developed a fascination with man’s relationship to society in high school. His English teacher, Phil Marnell (SF10), was a Johnnie and established an extracurricular class in which Oh could read and discuss the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other Program authors.

“He basically created a little Johnnie class in my high school, and I really enjoyed the experience because the Korean education is vastly different from a St. John’s education,” he says. “We had to study all the textbooks and memorize everything, but [Marnell] let me think of what I wanted to study and gave me a chance to read the primary texts and express my opinions on them.”

When it came time to pick a college, St. John’s was a clear choice for Oh. He spent two years on campus before receiving his draft notice and plunging into another vastly different world.

“I’ve experienced a lot of different cultures in my life,” he says. “I was born and raised in Korea, then I went to the United States to study philosophy, which was a totally different aspect of social relationship, and then I went into the military, where everything was very controlled. It was, again, 180 degrees different from St. John’s.”

After his service ended, Oh took an internship at an accounting firm and worked extensively in the realm of financial regulation and government compliance. Once again, he was exposed to a broad range of people and perspectives, and he began to seriously think about pursuing financial law as a career.

“The military experience gave me a chance to put myself in other people’s shoes more,” he says. “I started to appreciate people with different backgrounds and cultures. After coming back from the army, I think I paid more attention to diversity.”

When he returned to St. John’s, he approached Career Services. Director Jaime Dunn had once been a law school admissions counselor, and Oh says she guided him through the process every step of the way.

“The biggest problem that I had was that I didn’t know where to start and wasn’t sure what schools I could aim for. Ms. Dunn was very helpful in guiding me through my options and helping me create a concise application.”

He’s confident he’ll do well in law school thanks to an undergraduate education that “made [him] a deeper, critical thinker and a more concise writer.” (Johnnies, it's worth noting, have a great track record for law school admission. In the past five years, 40 students have garnered acceptances from 115 schools.) 

Now that he’s been accepted, though, he’s free to focus on the next big thing: his senior essay. As could be expected, it deals with the relationship between a society and its constituents—this time through the lens of Molière’s The Misanthrope.

“It shows a very paradoxical relationship between characters living in the modern world,” he says. “The main character, Alceste, is the misanthrope, who hates everyone else because he thinks they wear social masks to disguise who they are. But at the same time, he’s the one who truly believes that they can be good. The only reason he hates the disguises is that he thinks they’re capable of being good and they choose not to.”