It was May 2009. I remember that the weather was beautiful, reminding that the summer break is coming soon. I was sitting in front of my laptop with the mouth wild open staring at my mail box. I have just got the e-mail from my university that I successfully applied to study in South Korea. I couldn’t believe it for a while as it was my first big trip and my first time in Asia. I had no idea what to expect and how should I prepare. At that time, I knew only some general information about South Korea. I was asking around, but there was really nobody to talk about studying in this country.
I had no idea how I was going to organize everything, study there and pass the exams. Nevertheless, I had a feeling that it’s going to be ok. And it was more than ok.
The first few weeks were completely crazy. Everything happened so fast and everything was new. I wish I could know more before I came to South Korea, maybe I would be more prepared for this adventure. If you think about studying in this country, you don’t have to be worried anymore. I’m going to reveal many details and explain you how it is, step by step.
I landed in Seoul (read more about this city here) on August and my first thought was that it was insanely hot. There were 35 degrees (Celsius) and humidity close to 80 per cent. It was pretty hard, especially after a long trip from Poland. Korean students from my new university picked me up from the airport. It was quite helpful, because after a long fight I didn’t have to worry about getting to the campus. At that time, I didn’t know that this kind of support would be on the daily agenda.
I took part in the Global Leadership for Sustainable Development program. It was an exchange between Korean and European students, fully sponsored by the European Union. The scholarship included flight tickets to South Korea, a dormitory, meals in the student catenae, an insurance and some extra money each month. In comparison with e.g. Erasmus exchange, it was a great deal.
The dormitories in the campus were divided into 4 types: female for Koreans, female for expats, male for Koreans and male for expats. Don’t ask me why it was like this. I was also surprised that as an adult person I will face the male/female division (as it would be some kind of contraception method). From my observations – if a human being wants something very badly, even a separate building won’t help.
The entry to the dormitory that wasn’t yours was strictly forbidden. Not following the rules was equal with expulsion. Koreans don’t discuss much and some of my friends were kicked out of the dorm during the semester. All the excuses, apologies and assurances that it was the last time weren’t helpful. Rules are the rules in South Korea and there is no place for exception. My friends ended up renting apartments in the city.
The dormitories were like fortresses: tall and with hundreds of rooms.
On the other hand, the double rooms were teeny–tiny. There was only a space for two beds, two desks and small bathroom.
The fridges were on the corridor. Cooking, smoking and drinking alcohol was forbidden in the building. There was also a laundry room in the basement (combined with a TV room. I guess making a laundry and watching a sitcom was a perfect match).
We were also culturally divided into the different floors. For instance, there was no Chinese student on the floor no. 4 (the Chinese believe that no. 4 brings a bad luck, because it sounds like a word ‘death’).
I absolutely adore Korean cuisine so I didn’t have any problems with food. There was a student catenae in the campus where breakfasts and dinners were served daily. To be honest, I didn’t try many breakfasts, because the spicy octopus stew at 7 a.m. wasn’t my dreamy meal. The food was typical Korean so if someone was more in coffee and croissant team, then it was smart to eat in one of the cafes around the campus. The dinners were fine. It wasn’t a perfect example of Korean food, but let’s be honest – it was a canteen, not a fancy restaurant with the Michelin star.
Usually it served rice, meat and various kinds of veggies (like famous Korean kimchi – fermented cabbage or other vegetable). Obviously, the canteen wasn’t mandatory, so if someone wanted to grab something else, there is always an option to eat out.
The difficulty of studying like everywhere in the world, depends on the university and field of study. I’ve spent one semester on KONKUK University. Unfortunately, there was no social psychology faculty there so I decided to enroll in Business Administration. I could choose from many lectures in English so there was no problem with language.
The enrolment for lectures was quite shocking because the online system was entirely in Korean, impossible to understand for newcomers. However, there was a group of Korean students delegated to support foreigners (as always). They were helping to sign in for particular lectures. Koreans are really prepared for everything!
Studying the Korean language was the greatest challenge. I had 6 hours per week, which wasn’t that small. Korean language is difficult to learn, because it has signs instead of letters, so you need to start learning from the very begging (like in kindergarten). For the first few weeks we were taught only signs which we rewrote hundreds of times.
The fact is that anyone can learn to read in Korean quite fast, but… without understanding what is the text about.
Another thing. You need to forget about cheating in classes! It’s strictly forbidden and what is more it brings a huge indignation. You really don’t want to experience this emotion from Koreans.
The educational system is similar to western-standards. Most of the classes are all about group work, multimedia presentations, essays and short tests. If it is possible, the groups are multicultural. It means that you are going to work together with Korean students.
It requires a lot of patience because time management is not their strong point. Bringing all team members together at one time is practically impossible. Mobilizing them to work quickly is pointless because their learning and working style is really sluggish. They often do a break for coffee, cigarette, sending a text message or checking Facebook. It makes Europeans totally mad!
During the exam session you can also see that something special is going on. It’s some kind of a special event. University sport clubs are closed two weeks before the exams start, the canteen serves better meals and you can see Koreans studying 24/7 everywhere and sleeping in the libraries (read more about Koreans here).
Before my arrival, I was asked, if I wanted to have a buddy (Korean student from KONKUK University). Someone who can help me adapt. I wasn’t really sure if I need a support but I decided to give it a try. Just to meet someone new from another culture. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made! During the first few weeks I met Jiyoung, who was not only my buddy, but she also became my friend.
She showed me a few places in Seoul and helped me a lot with Korean language homework (she probably had a feeling that she was a kindergarten teacher :) sorry Jiyoug!). She was also my biggest support on the research I conducted. Thanks to her I completed my project. It was really great to have someone like her, also because she told me a lot about life in South Korea.
That was something. I was unlucky to use it twice (one time I had an eye problem, another time I had a terrible flue). To be honest, I don’t regret, because I had an exceptional opportunity to see how does the medical care work in Korea. And it works great. As an international student I had a feeling that everybody cared about me even more than usual. When I went to the hospital, next to the campus, I was immediately asked about the problem. A minute later, a really nice English-speaking nurse helped me with the registration, brought me to the medical room and waited with we for a doctor. Then she took part in a whole visit as interpreter between the doctor and me. It wasn’t over. After the visit she went with me to the pharmacy, asked for medicines and explained me how to use them. I’m glad that she was there, because Korean medicines are not so typical. They are customized and packed in separate bags for each day. Brilliant!
Well, it was great! Seoul is a city full of entertainment and students love to be entertained, so you can imagine how our free time was :) We could choose between great night clubs in Hongde district, small bars or karaoke.
Additionally, the university organized various student trips and events like going to the amusement park or museum. There was also a winter ski trip and cooking class. It wasn’t boring.
During my semester there were 80 exchange students from all over the world (most of them were from Europe). It was a cultural mix and it was the best thing. I was lucky to meet the fabulous people and many of them are still my friends.
At the beginning, we were all a little lost as we tried to find ourselves in the new reality. However, the feeling that we were altogether there, starting from the same level, was very supportive. I’ve been asked many times whether I was lonely during the exchange program, so far away from my family and friends. The answer is: no, I wasn’t. I’ve never been alone and those people were my family at that time. I would never change this experience for anything else, because it was one of the greatest times of my life. That’s why, if you still hesitate about studying abroad or going for an exchange program – stop wasting more of your precious time and just go. You will learn a lot and you will gain friends for life.
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