Achieving Career and Personal Goals in South Korea
story by Sydney James
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I wanted to be able to learn about South Korean culture firsthand in hopes of understanding, and appreciating life in different perspectives. I wanted to embrace how unique Korea is as a country. The intermingling of the modern and traditional ways of life between generations is very strong, and creates an interesting an incredible balance. Through personal research I have become enticed by Korea’s thriving market of culture, traditional foods, style, and music. Upon returning from my study abroad program, I came back with a completely new perspective on not only my education, but life as well. The biggest influence in my decision to go abroad was my parents. I knew that I wanted to go abroad, but I also knew that if I wanted to go I had to prove to them that I was going to do whatever means were possible to cover the expenses of my trip abroad. I applied to many scholarships, and with my parents behind me every step of the way I was able to win two scholarships to cover my study abroad trip. Without them encouraging me and helping me along the way, I don’t think I could’ve accomplished my goal and gotten as far as I have.
How did you pay for your study abroad experience?
I applied to many scholarships pertaining to study abroad. Thankfully I was able to receive the Gilman Scholarship, USA scholarship, and a Pell Grant.
What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?
Since this was my first flight abroad I was absolutely nervous. I knew that once I stepped on that plane, that there was no going back. I remembered taking deep breaths as I felt the plane leave the runway. I quickly grabbed some gum to chew on to remove that popping noise, and we were off. The first initial minutes of the plane ride felt like a roller coaster, but after that it was smooth sailing. I advise any first time travellers to stock up on gum to remove that ear popping noise, and bring something to distract you as the plane is taking off whether its a book, stuffed toy, or even a gaming system.
While abroad, I attended Chonnam National University (CNU) in Gwangju, South Korea. Upon arriving at the university I was immediately assigned to two Korean buddies, and four other students that were under the USAC program as well. We participated in many activities together, and travelled to different parts of Gwangju, and Seoul together as well. Chonnam University was an amazing school. They provided subjects not only in the Korean language, but in subjects such as: Fluid Mechanics, International Business, Korean history, and Intro to Comparative Government. While attending I took Korean I and II to improve my language skills. We attended class every single day during the week except Wednesdays, because of cultural field trips. I think the field trips were the best parts of the program. We had the opportunity to travel to different temples, hike a mountain, eat at local restaurants, walk through gardens, war memorials, and even visit a tower full of lights. I learned so much from just listening to our travel guides explain each location.
I'd like to emphasize the importance of getting into contact with your study abroad advisor. Your study abroad advisor wants to help you, and prepare you for your trip abroad. Study abroad advisors are there to help you alongside your application process, your scholarship process, or even just to talk about any fears and worries that you may have before departing for the airport. Going to my study abroad office is how I actually found about the Gilman scholarship program, and so many other scholarship opportunities that I had no idea were available for students like myself. My study abroad advisor also provided me an opportunity to obtain a free passport. I was so lucky to have talked to my advisor at the right time, because she explained to me that there are so many opportunities for students but because no one comes to the office only a few students learn about any scholarships or other opportunities.
So if I could give any advice for students planning to or even thinking about going abroad, I would say to go to your study abroad advisors. Besides your parents, they are your main support system. They can help you find the right study abroad program that fits you, and your goals.
Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
As an African American student going abroad, my initial goals (personal challenges) were to work on my irrational fear of being judged as I departed abroad. Before I left for South Korea, I had read many different travel blogs which helped me realize that my fear of the unknown was completely normal. Getting out of my comfort zone to embrace another part of the world was a giant leap for not only me, but my family as well. I have to be honest when I say I didn't experience any type of cultural insensitvity or discrimination at all. My study abroad program had so many students from many other countries, it didn't feel like I was an outcast at all I was able to become friends with students from China, Saudia Arabia, Zimbabwe, and Australia. I was able to embrace so many other cultures while I was studying abroad, it was such an amazing experience. I believe my love for Korean culture showed, because whenever I tried to communicate in the Korean that I knew, the natives smiled as if they were proud that someone from a completely different country was at least trying to communicate in their native tongue. I felt no hostility from anyone while I was abroad in Korea. I did get a few people come up to me, and touch my hair and skin, but I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. I knew that I was going to be stared at, that was something that I had readied myself for, before I even stepped on the plane, but I barely even felt any stares either. As an African American, I knew that I might have been the first black person some Koreans had ever seen, so I knew that I needed to make a good impression. I wanted to show them that the things they see on television don't represent each and every black person they see.
How has studying abroad benefited you, personally and academically?
As I was on my flight back to the United States, I was able to finally have a moment to process everything that happened to me in the span of two months. Thinking back on my trip abroad, I realize how much of an impact this experience has made on not only my life, but the people I've become close friends with as well. It's such a humbling experience to have had this opportunity to meet people from across the world. At the beginning of this program, I was completely nervous that my weird eccentric nerdy self would weird out the people I met. I was nervous about being a black female in a mostly homogenous society. I was nervous about a lot of things actually, but looking back now at those things, it seems so insignificant and small. This study abroad experience benefitted me in so many ways. I was able to experience not only a brand new country, but embrace its customs and activities. Growing up around Korean culture, I was already culturally aware of the customs, foods, traditions, but actually being in the country made such a difference.
One of my main goals when studying abroad was to improve my Korean language skills. While abroad, I was able to practice my Korean whenever I went out to the markets or took a taxi. My trip abroad gave me an even stronger desire to become immerse myself even further into the Korean culture, and become fluent in their native tongue. My desire for fluency extended beyond the acquisition of language to the use of technology as well. My career goal is to become a computer programmer with a strong skill set in Korean. This study abroad experience has helped me immensely as I continue towards my goals.