Journey to South Korea

by Hanna McCarthy, Senior, Political Science and International & Global Studies

My first experiences abroad are from the impressionable age of six years old. I flew with my parents to London and took a train to Paris. While in Paris, we stayed with a family who spoke very little English. One night my parents went out with the French parents, leaving me behind to stay with their two children and the children’s grandmother. And that night I experienced a major shock to my system.

We were watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I had watched dozens of times before, but this time I couldn’t understand a word of it. I couldn’t understand the children either, although they were around my same age. I was even terrified to ask the grandmother for anything. I knew she was there to watch over me, but I was so scared knowing that she, too, wouldn’t understand me. Instead, I sat there in silence until my parents returned.

I never forgot this experience, and ever since it has fueled my fascination with languages and international studies and my desire to push past my comfort zone for the sake of learning. In elementary school, I took a few Chinese lessons, then French in middle school, and now I am studying Korean and Japanese.

Last year my university studies afforded me the opportunity to study abroad in Daegu, South Korea. I spent two semesters on exchange at Keimyung University through ISEP (the exchange program provider that has partner schools all over the world including University of Memphis). I had a lot of concerns about going at first. Finances and family obligations were two of my greatest barriers, but I think it is possible to overcome those things and other obstacles if studying abroad is truly something that you are passionate about doing.

My year abroad opened me up to so many insightful experiences, but for the sake of time I’ll only mention a few here. The first week I arrived at school, there was a club fair going on. I walked past it every day with my friends, and we eventually decided that we didn’t want to miss out on any opportunity to experience student life in Korea. It was a bit intimidating to approach the booths, knowing that my Korean skills were still extremely weak, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to go the extra mile to have us in their club. It would mean translating constantly and making an extra effort to bridge that gap.

Luckily my friends and I were actually welcomed by several clubs, and I ended up joining the Red Cross Youth Club and MUSKAT (an English-language musical club). Through these clubs I was able to experience parts of student-life in Korea that gave me a window into understanding my Korean peers a little better, something I would otherwise have missed.

For example, when the RCY Club invited me and my friends to their MT, or membership training, I really had no idea what to expect aside from a very structured, orientation-like retreat. It was nothing of the sort. The MT’s main function was to create bonding memories and friendships between members to promote stronger teamwork in the future. In essence, we went to a cabin on a gorgeous mountain in Cheong-do (shown in the photo at left), cooked barbeque, played games, drank, ate, talked, and spent the night after a full day of forging new friendships. It was wonderful, and it made me so thankful to have taken that risk to step out of my comfort zone at the club fair weeks prior.

My host school’s international office also offered a variety of cultural experiences throughout the year. One such event that I took part in was a tea ceremony held at Byeongam Confucian Academy. At this event, the international students were all dressed in hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, and we learned about the significance of the types, colors, and styles we were wearing and what they would indicate about status and family relations. Then, it was teatime! We learned the proper methods of serving and receiving, ate, took photos (see mine at right), played traditional Korean games, and headed to an amusement park afterwards for some additional fun. These kinds of experiences were commonplace during my time abroad, and they allowed me to continue my studies even when I was outside of the classroom walls.

Now I am a senior in my final semester at the University of Memphis. I can honestly say that I am proud to be graduating with my degree in International Studies, because, aside from the fun and games, a lot of hard work has gone into it. Life after graduation is the next great adventure, and my current plan is to return to Korea to teach English in the fall. Whatever your path in life may be, I hope that you can also accomplish your goals, and never stop exploring the things that excite you.


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