Sarah Bielec is currently a junior majoring in elementary education with a concentration in Korean and a minor in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally from Minooka Illinois, Sarah chose to attend Illinois due to the Korean Language courses available and the strong support from the College of Education to study abroad. Sarah studied at Korea University in Seoul on two separate occasions, citing her first experience and a desire to take more courses as the motivation to go abroad again.
Please describe your program.
I went abroad to South Korea two times. During the Fall 2014 semester and the Summer 2015 semester. Both semesters I attended Korea University in Seoul. The fall term starts in September and ends around the same time as the University of Illinois does in December. Unlike Illinois though, the fall term is the second semester of the year. The summer semester starts at the end of June and goes until the beginning of August. My overall purpose for the first time studying abroad was to enhance my Korean Language skills, learn more about Korean History and Culture, and of course make friends. I had decided to return during the summer semester more so to see my friends and travel more. Personally for me the fall semester had a larger impact on me than the summer did, although I do not regret my decision at all for returning during the summer term. This is due to the fact that I was able to travel more and meet with friends once again. I say that the fall had a larger impact due to a few things. For one, during the fall semester exchange students are able to experience more school activities and interact with Korean students. For example, there is a huge sports festival that takes place in the fall called the Koyon Games. This sports festival is between Korea University and Yonsei University. The schools compete in 5 different sports games. This festival is so famous that even celebrities will attend or send support videos to the teams. Another reason has to do with the courses available. I took quite a few classes there. During the fall semester there is a larger range of courses available in all subject versus during the summer term. While studying at Korea University, I thoroughly enjoyed all of my classes. My professors were quite clearly experts on their topics, and loved what they were doing. The only issue with the program, and this is in regards more to the fall semester was the registering process for classes. The registration system is very complicated, so anyone interested in the program should definitely have back up plans for classes. The best thing that Korea University does is put everyone into an exchange club. This program is called KUBA, which is where they pair you up with a Korean student and students.
Why did you decide to apply/participate in this program?
I chose Korea University primarily because I liked the way the Korean language program was structured. Aside from the language courses, there were a lot of Korean History and Culture classes offered which the University of Illinois does not have. And the second time I went back, I had decided to participate in the same program due to the great time that I had at Korea University during the fall semester.
How did this experience benefit you academically? Personally? Professionally?
Personally, I made a lot of friends. I got out more there. I don’t really go out much with friends here on campus. However, while in Korea I went out almost every day with friends. One of my favorite things to do with my friends was going out to sing at noraebangs (basically Karaoke). In Korea, I really enjoyed the feeling of being a part of a community. Coming back to Illinois after the fall semester, I really missed being out in a large group for traveling or just having a meal. Some of the best memories I have were while sharing meals. Professionally, it helped me with my Korean skills and it got me familiar with the environment in which I want to work in in the future. I am hoping to work in a school as an English teacher or in a university there with study abroad-type programs between the U.S. and Korea. Generally knowing the culture, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. Knowing how to get around in Seoul will also just make my transition to working there in the future a lot less stressful. During my time there I made life-long friends, which is important to have so that they can vouch for me when I am applying to jobs. Academically, I was able to finish all my EALC credits that I needed to finish the minor, although the credits and hours were a bit different than they are here at Illinois.
How did your second study abroad experience differ from your first study abroad experience?
In the summer, you don’t get the full experience like you do in the fall. The summer courses are all taught in the same building, which surprised me. It was kind of nice, but you don’t get to experience the whole campus. In the fall, you definitely have more contact with Koreans, and it felt more like a community. During the summer semester I also hung out with a lot less people as I stuck around the friends that I had made in the fall, both exchange students and Korean. In the summer, like in the fall we were given a KUBA group, but I didn’t do anything with them in the summer and instead focused on spending time with my friends. Looking back, I regret not doing anything with my group, since I could have made more friends from different countries. Over the Summer I was fortunate to have made more Korean friends through my friends from the fall semester. A significant difference between the fall and summer was that I traveled a lot more in the summer. Since I knew my area, knew how to do things, it made it easier. That was a regret I had in the fall was not traveling outside of Seoul. Traveling outside of Seoul I was able to experience a lot of new things. For one, there are a lot less foreigners outside of Seoul, and I definitely felt like I was the only foreigner. It was really weird; it was first for me. In the fall, there were tons of foreigners around me all of the time, so it didn’t feel weird, but when I got out further it did. Also, I noticed the Seoul felt a lot more fast-paced. While traveling I kept comparing a lot of things to Seoul such as price differences and the availability of things. I felt like I was spoiled in Seoul. Overall, I think my experience in the fall was better. It was a new experience for me and I didn’t know what to expect.
Have these experiences changed your future goals/aspirations in any way? If so, how?
Going abroad made me realize I want to work in the field of international education. After being there, I know I want to work more closely with something related to Korea as well. Whether it would be like a history field, or making study abroad programs for education majors between Korea and the U.S. I think that’s what changed while I was there since I had such a positive experience. Previously, I was leaning more towards elementary education because I love working with kids, but from these experiences I found that I wanted to be more on the international side of things. Through being involved in the international education field I hope to encourage more people to study abroad. I also hope to spread the fascinating history and culture to others. I want to show people all sides of the culture, so that they can fully understand it.
Would you recommend this particular program, or similar study abroad experiences more generally, to other students? If so, why?
Yes, I would absolutely recommend the Korea University Program. I would do so, as I think Korea University does a great job of supporting its students. The staff are pretty available, they have their own space where you can go talk to them, and they were quick at responding to emails. I may not have always liked their replies, but they got back to me quickly. I also appreciated the other forms of support such as the huge exchange student group, KUBA. Without that group, I don’t think I would have enjoyed my experience there as much. The group exposes you to cultural activities and facilitates the process of making friends at Korea University. That group had the largest impact on my time in Korea. Students are automatically registered for the group and you are free to decide how involved in it you want to be. It’s extremely rewarding because you get paired with a Korean student and a couple other international students. And in the summer, there were also free events students could go to, like a Korean pop hologram concert. Lastly, I really liked that there were multiple living options. I actually chose to live off campus in a one-room, and by living there I was still close to the university but also close to the subway and tons of local restaurants.
Why should other students study abroad in Korea?
South Korea has a long and fascinating history. With this long history comes a very interesting culture. Learning about country's history and culture through being immersed in it changes one's life. One can make unforgettable memories with fellow Korean and exchange students through going on day trips to going to sing at a noraebang. Of course, anyone who wants to improve their Korean Language Skills, then traveling to the home of the language is also the best thing that can be done. The schools that one can go on a study abroad program are known for different academic areas, so anyone can find something that they are interested in. There are a lot of things you have to consider when choosing a program. While I of course highly recommend studying to South Korea, I know that it may not be a fit for everyone. For example, if you can’t eat meat or certain kinds of food, a student may have a harder time adjusting. But if you are up for that sort of challenge and you know you can handle it then 100% go for it. The only reason that I would not recommend this program is if the individual who is studying abroad has a disability that makes it difficult to walk. South Korea is a mountainous country and the land is very hilly. Korea University and other university's campuses are not flat. Often times sidewalks are extremely uneven making it hard to walk on. Currently, I believe that there is not enough accessibility for those who may need alternative ways of getting around. If an individual who may not be able to get around very well is determined to go to Korea, I would say that they need to plan extremely well, to ensure that they will not be overcome with stress of traveling. For anyone who is hoping to study abroad, not only to South Korea, but anywhere in the world the best thing you can do is to make friends, both local and foreign. Otherwise, it is just not as enjoyable of an experience. One has to make an effort and go out of your comfort zone. By doing this I know for a fact that anyone going abroad will have once in a lifetime opportunities and make memories that will last forever.