Last fall, I spent an amazing four months studying at Yonsei University in South Korea. It was the most care-free, enjoyable, and eye-opening four months of my life. From being nervous yet excited to meet my roommate on the first night to saying dreaded goodbyes on the last day, this exchange journey was filled with friendships gained, places travelled, and lessons learned. Among other things, what made studying abroad so valuable is that it provided me with the following opportunities:
One of the best parts of living in a new place as an exchange student is that you get a lot of time to travel and explore. I spent weekends visiting different places around Seoul, going to almost all of the major attractions and shopping districts in the region. Some places I went to included historical sites such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and Bukchon Hanok Village; amusement parks like Everland and Lotte World; tourist areas such as Hangang Park and N Seoul Tower, and shopping districts such as Gangnam and Myeongdong. I also tried Korean street-eats at traditional food markets; enjoyed the night-views from local beaches and bridges; strolled through museums, and attended multiple K-pop concerts for free. On long weekends, my friends and I traveled outside of Seoul – visiting the beautiful beaches of Jeju Island and the super-fresh seafood markets in Busan. All of these fun experiences were possible because I got to live in Korea as an exchange student for a whole semester. While studying and bonding with classmates has its own enjoyable elements, after the school work is done, every day can be a new exciting adventure!
With my family located just one bus-stop away from SFU Burnaby campus, I have never had a need to live in residence. I thought that it would be nothing special aside from having to cook and do laundry for myself. However, after living at SK Global House -- one of Yonsei University’s international dorms -- I realized that I had been missing out! Living on campus is vastly different from living at home. At home, I would usually only interact with my parents and younger siblings. Living at SK Global House, I found myself surrounded by people my age, who shared similar interests, and who were going through similar struggles. I discovered that it is sometimes easier to communicate my joys and sorrows to other students rather than my family, simply because we understand each other better. Also, being situated close to friends of the same age means that it was easier for us to hang out every day. Whether it be to study, eat, shop, travel, or just to chat. While living away from home, I was also able to develop many life skills, such as cooking, budgeting my finances, shopping for home necessities, and going to official institutions such as banks and immigration offices on my own. All of these skills will come in handy when I eventually move out and start my own family.
There is no better way to learn a new language than to immerse yourself in the culture of another country. Being a fan of K-pop and K-dramas, I had longed to become fluent in Korean for quite some time. I had done some self-study through online resources and took a few classes here and there, but nothing seemed to significantly enhance my Korean speaking abilities. This is why when I heard that Yonsei’s, Korean Language Institute was offering an intensive language course for incoming exchange students, I was ecstatic and applied right away. The course involved ten hours of class time per week. Although it could be demanding at times, it was deeply rewarding. My Korean skills improved dramatically through rigorous study and constant exposure to the language. Outside the classroom, I had the opportunity to put to use the phrases I had learned. At first, it was slightly intimidating when I had to speak Korean to locals who did not know English. However, over time, as I practiced more and more, not only did my language skills improve, my confidence in speaking to strangers from diverse backgrounds also grew. I am extremely glad that I had the chance to learn a new language and become better at engaging across cultures.
No matter how thrilling it was to study and travel abroad, the friends I made along the way were what mattered most at the end-of-the-day. As newcomers to a foreign country, international students tend to stick together and create friendships quite quickly. Right from Orientation Day, I met a group of friends who I would travel with almost every weekend. As we all lived on campus, we often had meals together or went out to shop together. Also, it was easy to become good friends with the people in my language class whom I saw almost every day as well. This kind of daily contact with friends and classmates was something that would have been difficult to experience if I had continued to live at home, only commuting to school and work. Being a more reserved person, this kind of frequent interaction was exactly what I needed to truly develop deep friendships. Going on trips with my friends also helped strengthen our bond as we worked together to navigate our way through unfamiliar situations. Living in Korea also presented many opportunities to connect with the local Korean students. I was able to meet some great people through the courses I took, and student clubs I joined. We kept each other’s contact information and continue to stay-in-touch. I believe we will be able to meet again in the future.
In conclusion, going on exchange allowed me to see another part of the world, grow as a person, and connect with others on a deeper level. It also let me experience the best parts of “student-life” and gave me the desire to try new things in the future. After returning from Korea, I found I had the desire to keep traveling, to continue building diverse relationships, and to find more unconventional opportunities for myself. For example, after I returned I applied to internships outside of Vancouver and was fortunate to land a summer job in Toronto (having international experience on my resume definitely helped). Having never been to the east side of Canada, I was extremely excited for a chance to explore a new city and re-connect with friends from my exchange who were living there. I am tremendously grateful that I took the advice of friends that encouraged me to apply for an international exchange, and I strongly encourage students currently contemplating to just go for it!
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