Faces and places of a different life recede into memory once you step back into a home you left behind. You realize that nothing has changed except you. It’s an uncomfortable yet psychedelic feeling that lingers as you attempt to regain your footing in the life you once had. Returning to the U.S. emphasized the amount of experiences I’d gained from my time in Seoul as an exchange student. I’ve built friendships with wonderful individuals around the world. I’ve encountered obstacles academically, financially, and culturally which has enriched my perspective on society. I’ve learned more about myself than I’ve ever had before. The memories I have from Seoul are irreplaceable. They’re pieces of my life that I’ll cherish.
Never will I regret my decision to study abroad. It was a long-sought dream of mine to hop onto a plane and fly into another culture. During my high school days, I had heard stories from teachers and older students of their experiences abroad that cultivated my desire to do the same. When I was applying for university, one of the features that I factored into my choice of higher education was how accessible studying abroad would be for me. The opportunities I knew I had at my disposable at Benedictine University convinced me to apply. When I became a university freshman, I immediately visited the Office of International Programs and Services and expressed my enthusiasm to study abroad. I had a plan sketched out with suggestions such as which semester would be the best for me to go, what classes I could possibly take, and how I would prepare my finances. I was committed to travel and learn. Furthermore, the international friends that I met as an active member of Inter-Cultural Club at Benedictine University fueled my aspiration to reach my dream. The joy I saw in their eyes while they were studying abroad here in the U.S. gave me hope that I would experience a similar happiness. When I received the acceptance letter from Kyung Hee University for the exchange program, I was overjoyed. I couldn’t wait to go. Up until my departure, I prepared diligently. Filling out numerous forms, receiving necessary vaccinations, taking Korean language classes, and more were essential for me to complete before I could go. It wasn’t until I was rolling my luggage towards my departure gate that I realized that I was going to study abroad. A downpour of emotions fell upon me at once. Excitement, fear, worry, hope, and more filled my thoughts as the airplane took flight. I didn’t know what kind of adventure I would be having, but I was ready to take a chance on it.
Comparisons cannot be helped be made when you leave your home country. The world you enter is vastly different. However, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s merely a distinctive culture for you to observe and appreciate. My first month in Seoul was exhilarating. Almost immediately, I bonded with several other exchange students and connected with Korean peers. After months apart, I caught up with friends I’d met while they studied abroad at Benedictine. I enjoyed a plethora of delicious dishes such as dak galbi (닭 갈비), kimchi jigae (김치찌개), pajeon (파전), and bingsu (빙수). I explored the city by visiting hotspots like Myeongdong (명동), Cheonggyecheon (청계천), and Gwangjang Market (광장시장). On my calendar, I had something planned for every weekend. I had lists of places and activities I wanted to do at least once before my return to the U.S. I asked locals for sights I should see, restaurants I should try, shops I should visit, and phrases I should learn to enhance my cultural experience. Any suggestions or opportunities offered to me were considered and, more often than not, explored. Furthermore, through IFCC (International Friendship and Culture Club), I was able to participate in events coordinated by my peers at Kyung Hee University. They allowed me to try out new things such as hiking a mountain and playing paintball. Also, they provided me an opportunity to share my culture with others. For example, I partook in the Language Exchange Program where I was paired up with a Korean peer. We would meet at least once a week to teach each other our native language. Through this, my Korean language skills improved as my partner taught me slang and daily phrases. On the other hand, I was able to teach her about English grammar and slang too. I was happy to be able to share my language and culture with another person, especially someone that I can call a friend now. While I certainly enjoyed my time abroad by hanging out with friends and visiting beautiful places, I also attended classes and received first-hand experience of another country’s education system. Kyung Hee University broadened my academic prowess, as the format of lectures in South Korea was more teacher-based. However, I was expected to overview topics covered in class in preparation for exams, which is similar to U.S. education. There was more emphasis on testing for knowledge as students had to listen in lectures and study what was or wasn’t covered on their own rather than practicing application of learned concepts through homework or presentations. My study routine was adapted to read what was necessary every week, understanding the topic in which the professor would be presenting. Although slightly different from the way I’m used to being taught in the U.S., I adjusted how I learned and studied in order to succeed academically. As a result, I earned fairly good grades. While I was being educated academically abroad, I also learned how to personally finance myself. Before I arrived in Seoul, I had worked jobs and saved up money for personal expenses. As I adapted to my new environment, I had to determine where my money was going. I asked questions such as “Do I need to spend on this?” or “Have I already tried this?” It was essential to know how I was using my money. Although I had a budget, it didn’t limit my chances for discovery and fun. Experiencing academic, financial, and personal obstacles enriched my time in Seoul. By overcoming difficulties and adapting to cultural differences, I was able to strengthen my character through studying abroad.
While studying abroad appears to be a solo effort, it certainly wasn’t. I had various individuals and groups who helped me pull through. Firstly, I had countless friends that supported and encouraged my endeavors. They kept the spark of travelling and learning in another country alive for me. In addition, my family accepted my desire to leave my comfort zone. They kept me grounded, reminding me of any dangers I may face and how I should deal with them. However, they permitted me to indulge in my wanderlust. While my family had qualms about me traveling alone to a completely different country, they did not undermine my decision. They saw my determination and dedication. They listened to my motives. They voiced their concerns yet allowed me to go. My family worried for me out of love but didn’t hinder me from studying abroad. In fact, they made me appreciate it more. Another group of individuals I am grateful to is the International Programs and Services (IPS) at Benedictine University. They embraced my ambition and guided me through the process every step of the way. By giving me advice and answering my inquiries, they eased my anxieties. Any paperwork I had to complete; they helped me scour through. Any requirements I needed to fulfill; they informed me of them. The International Programs and Services were a profoundly supportive group towards my desire to study abroad. Without them, I wouldn’t have been as informed as I was. In addition to my family and IPS, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education greatly aided my capability to study abroad. Most significantly, they designated me as one of the recipients of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship for the 2015 spring cycle. Out of 2,700 applicants, they awarded 800 individuals. I was lucky enough to be one of them. This program promotes relations between people of various nations to develop better understanding for one another. Through sponsorship of undergraduate students in the U.S., the Gilman Scholarship offers opportunities to study or intern abroad by dispelling financial difficulties. With this scholarship, I was able to cover many financial necessities such as flight tickets, tuition, and more. Moreover, the program also connected me to the U.S. embassy in Seoul and introduced me to an international insurance service. Due to this, I received regular updates from the embassy about safety measures, extracurricular activities, and more while I was in South Korea. Also, they connected me to a network of Gilman alumni who’d been abroad. The Gilman Scholarship solidified my dream of studying abroad. They gave me the tools to flight on my journey. Essentially, there were many people that made everything possible for me to go to Seoul. Without them, I don’t know if I could’ve done what I did. All these people were integral to my study abroad experience—because they helped make it happen.
Coming home is a bittersweet feeling. I missed my family, my friends, and my regular daily life in the U.S. while I was in Seoul. However, I find myself reminiscing over memories of being abroad. It feels strange not seeing the faces of people I saw everyday in a district imprinted on the back of my hand. It feels odd not sitting down for meals in restaurants and cafes I visited weekly. It feels unusual not stepping onto a subway to explore a city unknown every weekend. I feel a little out-of-place at home. It’s still home—unchanged. Yet, I am not the same person I was when I left. I have grown as individual in many ways. Through all my experiences in Seoul, I have become a better person. My perspective on the world has broadened. By meeting a diverse group of people and adapting to a new culture, I view things more openly. I’m less inclined to judge others and I attempt to step into their shoes. Studying abroad has given me a lifetime of precious memories, a plethora of friends, and a stronger sense of who I am. It is a worthwhile journey for anyone to go on. If they can, I greatly encourage others to take a chance on stepping out of their bubble and throwing themselves into unfamiliar territory. I do not have any regrets in studying abroad. If I could go again, I would without hesitation.