South Korea Study Abroad Resources

Study Abroad Spotlight-South Korea

I’ve gotten some emails over the past year from individuals who have randomly stumbled across my blog (hearing from my readers makes me extremely happy). The reason they contact me is that I’ve studied abroad in South Korea, a country not nearly as popular as other destinations such as England, Italy and Australia. They’re emailing me to ask the kinds of questions that perhaps their study abroad advisers can’t answer since they haven’t studied in that country themselves, nor is it information that the Frommers guidebook to South Korea would cover. Therefore I thought it might be a good idea to start a new post series related to questions about the three countries where I studied-South Korea, Costa Rica, and Spain. Here are some of the queries I received concerning living and studying in South Korea.

-What was it like to study abroad in South Korea?
Intimidating. Overwhelming (at times). Fun. Unforgettable. Chance of a lifetime. There are not enough adjectives in the world to sum up my experience in South Korea. It was my first time to Asia and from the moment I stepped off the plane at Incheon Airport, I was in another world, literally and figuratively. Although I had traveled a fair amount before then (to three Western European countries and as an exchange student experience in central Mexico), nothing compares to seeing a centuries old giant statue of Buddha located up on a mountain, or a royal palace that was built before the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia was ever founded or the DMZ, even more meaningful with what’s currently going on in the world,

-Did you know any Korean prior to studying there?
No. While I loved languages, I attended an extremely small college where Korean was not on the curriculum. And unfortunately my Spanish wasn’t of much benefit (i.e. no benefit) even though French and German language instruction was gaining in popularity according to my Korean classmates. I bought Korean language CDs which I listened to on the 15 hour plane ride over. However, after trying out some phrases with a Korean classmate and having my pronunciation constantly corrected even though I was mimicking what I had heard, I gave up. By the end of my time in Korea, I had more or less mastered the Korean alphabet, at least when it came to recognizing characters. Being able to read the characters in complete sentences and words was another matter.

-So how did you get by if you didn’t speak any Korean?
Well, it helped that I lived in Seoul, capital of the country as well as its largest everything. (Don’t worry there are a lot of other major cities in Korea too.) Also, Not knowing how to speak, read, and write English automatically gives Koreans a major advantage when it comes to the job market so in many instances I was around individuals who were all too anxious to try out their English speaking abilities. However, there were still many times when no one spoke English; in those cases you resort to either pointing (hand language, universally known) or you honestly ask multiple people until you find someone who can help you.

-What was the hardest part about studying in Korea?
As odd as it may sound, for me it was the food. Of course I encountered a few language difficulties, but nothing that was traumatic or frustrating to the point I wanted to say to heck with it all. Bu the food was tough. I stayed in a university dormitory and three meals a day were provided. While breakfast did include cereal (most likely for the benefit of the American and Canadian students), it also included some native specialties such as kimchi, and at lunch, under the sea creatures that featured one too many tentacles for my liking. I often felt famished throughout the day and so when time permitted I would take the subway to nearby Itaewon which us home to a plethora of Western fast food establishments (KFC and Burger King). When I didn’t have the time to do that, I would buy myself ice cream treats from a nearby convenience store or pick up some rolls and pastries from a French bakery that was adjacent to the subway station. It’s not that I didn’t like the things I ate-I still like Korean food-but when you eat it all the time and try some delicacies that you wouldn’t or shouldn’t think exist, your stomach is going to rebel. I didn’t eat out too much on my own since most menus were only in Korean and ordering could be a real gamble.

-Did you ever feel unsafe?
Not at all. Although I’m sure crime certainly exists in Seoul considering how large a city it is, I never once felt at risk. Granted, I think I went out to a club once when I was there and abstained from any hardcore partying/alcohol imbibing, unlike some of my fellow classmates. However, I still was out on the streets extremely late some nights (i.e. past midnight) not to mention I traveled throughout Seoul on my own on foot as well by subway. It’s a city where it seemed much of the population were extreme night owls (at least on the weekends) and walking the streets at 1 AM wasn’t that big of a deal. One more note,this never made me feel unsafe, but people would gawk at me continuously, most likely due to my red hair (which in some non-western cultures has an evil connotation attached to it). The gawking definitely got on my nerves at times, since I neither sprouted a horn nor had three eyes.

-Would you recommend studying abroad in South Korea to others? 
I would, provided you’re studying in a major city there. Granted, I don’t think many universities in rural areas of Korea would attract foreign students; however, if you have never been to Asia and don’t know the language, stick to the major cities where you still have access to major comforts and conveniences, not to mention a sense of familiarity.

-Would you do it again if you had the chance?
In a heart beat.

Anything I didn’t cover? Feel free to ask!

You’re never too old for dress up! Donning traditional Korean attire-hanbok

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  • Reply
    March 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Ooh study abroad programs are always so much fun! You sound like you had loads of fun in Korea!

    How long were you there for? 😀

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    March 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Korea was a once in a lifetime experience for sure!

    Just a month-a part of me wish it had been longer since by the time I left I was finally starting to feel comfortable and used to life there 🙂

  • Reply
    Study Abroad Spotlight-Costa Rica | My great WordPress blog
    May 4, 2014 at 1:33 am

    […] -What was it like to study abroad in Costa Rica? My semester in Costa Rica could best be equated to coming out of one’s shell. Although I loved to travel, trying new foods, seeing new sights, meeting new people, I had a led a pretty pampered existence prior to traveling to the nation which is the size of Massachusetts. Although I had spent the summer in Mexico, a developing nation, I stayed with a host family there that was by all accounts quite well off compared with the majority of the population. By contrast in Costa Rica it was a complete “role reversal.” My first Costa Rican host family seemed to barely make ends meet. It was there that I dealt with the realities of no hot showers, small meal portions that offered no nutritional value (thankfully fruit was plentiful and cheap), and cockroaches that could really leave me mentally rattled for how often they were visitors in the house. I studied through a program whose focus was sustainable development,  so unlike a study abroad experience in Europe, field trips were solely educational (visits to local cooperatives, a banana plantation that was not Dole i.e. the workers received more than standard wages and less harsh working conditions). Despite the negatives my Costa Rican semester was definitely the highlight of my college years. I don’t know if I could do it again almost 10 years later, but it was one of those “young people’s things” that I am so happy and fortunate to have experienced. While study abroad programs will vary considerably (others are most likely not as “sustainable development” inclined as mine was), you’ll still be living in a developing country and exposed to the realities. -Did you know any Spanish prior to studying there? Yes. I had taken Spanish for four years in high school and three semesters in college. My program required all participants to have a solid understanding of Spanish. As it was, I was one of the least proficient students. (I was good but not good enough to be carrying on debates in Spanish regarding the CAFTA-Central American Free Trade Agreement, a controversery at the time.)  However, as I mentioned above, programs will vary considerably so there are some that would accept Spanish speaking beginners and conduct courses in English (all of mine were in Spanish).  -If you don’t know any Spanish is it possible to get around? Outside of the classroom, when in tourist areas (i.e. Manuel Antonio, Arenal) you would hear English being spoken. Also, on the Caribbean coast in places like Puerto Viejo and Limon, you would hear a lot of English mixed in with a Caribbean  creole being spoken due to the large number of West Indian immigrants that had come to Costa Rica at the turn of the last century to work on the railroads. If you stick to the tourist areas you will be fine with limited to no Spanish skills. But all in all, it’s always a good idea to know some Spanish (i.e. the crucial phrases one needs at the bus station, in a restaurant, at a shop) as it will benefit you greatly. A plus-Costa Rican Spanish, I feel, is perhaps the easiest form of Spanish for Americans to understand. Unlike in other Spanish speaking countries where other languages and dialects have mixed in, Costa Rican Spanish is incredibly pure.  -What was the hardest part about studying in Costa Rica? The conditions. When people travel to Costa Rica as tourists, staying at gorgeous four star beachfront properties, it’s easy to forget that the majority of the locals don’t live such an existence themselves. In the capital of San Jose, many of the roads and sidewalks are in terrible condition (one has to be careful where they walk lest they fall into an open sinkhole). Public buses range from glossy new to antiquated  ones that should have been taken to the bus graveyard decades ago. While growing up, there were certainly bugs in my house (small spiders, pesky flies, ants on occasion), but I can’t ever once remember there being a cockroach. I had always equated cockroaches with dirty places and squalid conditions. Any time I saw a cockroach (which was a lot) I would get upset that there was nowhere I could go that didn’t have these horrid, disgusting creatures. Even at my second host family’s house, one that was a palace in comparison and much cleaner, there were still cockroaches. Living in Costa Rica amongst the locals is not for the faint of heart. But where else are there volcanoes, and verdant fields, and glorious beaches and such friendly people all in one small place?  -Did you ever feel unsafe? Prior to traveling to Costa Rica I had read a lot about the country’s unsavory reputation in regards to safety, especially in the capital city of San Jose where I would be living. I very rarely went out at night but when I did it was always in a group setting. (I wasn’t a total loser, it’s just that during the internship portion, another girl and I were the only ones to remain in San Jose.) I was asked one time to meet some friends at a dance club but ended up not going as I didn’t want to take a taxi by myself that late at night. I took many cabs during the daytime and it was only with one cabbie where I truly felt harm might come to me if I didn’t just pay him and get the heck out of the taxi. (The meter displayed one rate, the cab driver said a much higher fare, I protested and his manner immediately changed to menacing.) Many times I had occassion to journey deep into the heart of the Central Valley where I attempted to intern at an orphanage. This involved  two bus rides and then, in the heart of this small town, waiting for a taxi to take me near to the base of the orphanage. (One time I shared a taxi with three other people, now THAT was a new experience.) From what I’ve read, foolish choices and being impaired are usually the main reasons why harm comes to travelers and study abroad students.  -Would you recommend studying abroad in Costa Rica to others?  Yes. Although there is no shortage of Spanish speaking destinations for college students, Costa Rica is unique. While I would certainly recommend studying abroad in Spain (which will be covered next in the spotlight series), Spain in reality is only a small part of the Spanish speaking world. I think it’s all the more imperative to learn and becomes entrenched in the Latin American world. Costa Rica is an extremely inexpensive country for college students and simply put, offers so much in return to those that walk through its doors.  -Would you do it again if you had the chance? Yes, if I was 19 again I definitely would. I can’t say the same with nearing almost 30! But for a “young person” it’s an exhilarating destination.  For anyone interested, I studied with the Institute for Central American Development Studies, whose website you can access here (they have a variety of programs and not all for just college students).  Anything I didn’t cover? Feel free to ask! My reward-a gorgeous vista after a slightly  strenuous hike in Manuel Antonio More in this series! Study Abroad Spotlight-South Korea […]

  • Reply
    Study Abroad Spotlight-Spain | The Red Headed Traveler
    May 9, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    […] Abroad Spotlight-Costa Rica Study Abroad Spotlight-South Korea     From: Spain, study abroad ← Morning, Noon, and Night Around the World […]

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