Although studying abroad seems to be stressful while planning and preparing, I want to assure you that it is very possible and such a rewarding experience. Traveling to Korea was my first international travel experience, alone, nonetheless. Going abroad during COVID-19 also did not make my travel plans any easier, as there was a mandatory 2-week quarantine period and other requirements due to the country’s thorough COVID precaution policies. However, after I was actually able to get out and explore Korea, it almost felt like a second home. My first day out of quarantine was a bit overwhelming because I saw so many new places, but it was also one of my favorite days. During quarantine, I made plans with my friend who lives in Korea. He was an international student at my high school, and we first met in 10th grade. Over the years, we became friends, and it was a bit of a full-circle moment when I told him I was going to study in Korea. I am grateful for his help while navigating a new country because it is completely different from the US.
We met in Hongdae, where I was staying, and travelled to Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul known for its abundance of restaurants (many of them from different countries) and nightlife. However, we went in the day specifically to see Minju Kim (a fashion designer) and her pop-up shop that was only open for one weekend. After my friend showed me around Itaewon for a while, we took the subway to Yeouido and walked by Hangang (the Han River) to see the city from a new perspective. Nearby, the new Hyundai Seoul Mall had been opened to the public, so we went inside for a while. It was nice to cool off as well! Seoul’s summers are even worse than the US South. I would definitely recommend buying a portable fan to bring along– you’ll be walking a lot! After my first day, we had walked over 21,000 steps. Once we left Yeouido, we went back to Hongdae to have samgyeopsal (KBBQ) and walk around more to truly experience Korea’s night life. Overall, it was a very tiring, satisfying, and fulfilling first day.
I chose to go through CIEE for extra support while abroad, and they are established at Yonsei University, one of Korea’s SKY Universities (these three universities being deemed the most prestigious). I am majoring in International Relations and double minoring in Asian Studies and Spanish. It was a a perfect opportunity for me to work on my Asian Studies minor. The classes are manageable, but they do take effort. Honestly, the dorms were pretty average and not much to talk about. However, the location is quite perfect. The university is located in Sinchon, and it only takes a 10-20 minute walk to be in the heart of the neighborhood. And, it is only a 20 minute bus ride to Hongdae, which is known for its unique arts and modern culture. I definitely learned how to be independent and interact with people without too much of a language barrier. Most of the times I am introverted, but in Korea, I became more extroverted. You can’t be too shy to order food or to ask a question because it really isn’t worth being embarrassed over. It was also very interesting to see the different dynamics of “community” playing out. Everyone wore masks in Korea as it is a precaution for COVID, which was a nice change. I experienced a big culture shock when I came back to the US. Maybe half of the people I see nowadays wear masks, and the portion sizes are overwhelmingly large compared to Korea. This culture shock while arriving in the US was something I was expecting, but I didn’t know it would be so difficult to adjust.
I am very lucky to have friends in Korea. They were a big support to me while I was away. However, there’s also so much time to make friends while abroad. I went on many excursions and ate at countless restaurants with people I met after I had landed in Korea! There’s no need to stress. Also, almost everyone is willing to help you if you ask. My friends and I even had people on the street try to assist us when we were looking extra lost. I would say most importantly, make sure you know basic phrases in Korean or have a reliable translator. While most everything is in Korean and English, it is still important to be courteous and understanding. You are in another country and do not want to come across as the ignorant foreigner.
I understand that all of the newnesses can be overwhelming. My first day caused me to have a bit of a sensory overload. The only way I remembered everywhere we went was because I took pictures. I would definitely suggest you take some time before you leave the US to get familiar with Seoul’s popular neighborhoods and Korea’s geography in general. Having a basic understanding of Korea’s transportation system is key. I learned as I went, which resulted in me getting on the wrong bus three different times and getting lost at night. (Although, I will say I was not too worried walking around at night since Korea’s atmosphere feels much different from the US). Getting familiar with neighborhoods you will be around frequently is also a must. For the most part, I was following my friend around, and I would not have been able to navigate the city by myself the first day because I did not do enough research beforehand. Furthermore, make sure you have a few places you want to go! Everything in Korea is fairly close, and you’ll most likely be able to do multiple things in one day (if you really want to)! I was even able to go to Nami Island, Busan, and Jumunjin Beach while I was abroad. At first, I thought they were quite far from Seoul, but they’re really only a couple of hours away by KTX. There’s always something to do in Korea and I wish I had made a more extensive list of places I wanted to visit. Fortunately, I was able to do everything I could possibly imagine due to my friends’ help. My other friend (who I also met in high school since she was an international student) lives in Gangnam, and she was able to show me around her neighborhood. After walking around with my friends a couple of times I was able to familiarize myself with the city, and by the end of my study abroad trip, Korea truly felt like my second home.
There are plenty of other things I could write about, but I wanted to keep it practical and short(ish). Personally, I never thought I would study abroad right after my Freshman year. I couldn’t dream of having enough money to fund my studies abroad. However, there are many scholarships out there that I never even knew existed. If you are worried about finances, I want to assure you that studying abroad is not out of reach, and it is attainable. Hard work and dedication (and some research!) is all it takes. The moment will come :). 화이팅!
Emma Sprayberry (International Studies) spent summer 2021 studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea through CIEE. Emma had the following to say about studying abroad, “Studying abroad is more accessible than you might think, and the experience itself is one of the most enriching opportunities you can have in university. I would consider it to be one of my most beautiful moments in life and I definitely recommend studying abroad as much as possible.”
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