What Inspired Keoni to Study Korean

It’s about 10pm, and I’m here in my program’s student lounge in Korea University. Pictures of past cohorts line the walls of the room and fill the room with a sense of legacy. Since 2003, American students from the Korean Flagship Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have come through this program to become Korean language professionals in their respective academic field. Graduates from this program have filled government positions in Washington D.C., educational positions throughout the country, and positions in private companies in Korea and the U.S. as well as non-profits.

As I look at the faces of the cohorts that have come before me, I can’t help but reflect on my own Korean language journey. All of these people in the pictures-- these are the people that inspired me to join this program. Their stories inspired me to be fluent in Korean, just like them. I would hear about these foreigners in the program that spoke Korean fluently, and the more I learned about them personally, the more confident I became in my own potential to attain professional proficiency in Korean.

Of all the pictures on the wall, there’s one in particular that I think many of us can recognize. It’s a picture of Terris; a graduate of the Korean flagship program who many people know through Talk to me in Korean (TTMIK). I remember watching TTMIK videos on YouTube and listening to podcast lessons while I was at work. Terris was someone that I had the utmost respect for because he is a foreigner like me, and his Korean was easily better than any foreigner I knew. I still remember watching the “How Terris Learned Korean” video on Hyunwoo Sun’s YouTube channel. For some reason, it was so motivating. Every time I listened to his story, I felt motivated and ready to study more Korean so that one day I could be as fluent as him.

When I started studying Korean in my sophomore year it would take me forever to read a sentence of Korean, let alone understand what I just read afterward. I didn’t understand most of what my teacher said, and I was that guy who nodded in agreement even when I comprehended only 10% of what I just heard. I would stutter when saying simple sentences, and sometimes spoke to teachers and elders in an informal speech level. It was hard for me to believe that my Korean would progress to an advanced level, but while looking to my peers and seniors in my program, I was constantly reminded that this wasn’t out of my reach.

The Korean Flagship program has taken my Korean language ability from novice to advanced in just a few years. Although I wouldn’t compare myself to a native yet, I’ve written multiple essays and two theses, given a handful of presentations, and participated in debates-- all in Korean. Now I’m here in Korea about to begin two semesters taking college courses while interning at a Korean company. Terris was attending Korea University and interning at TTMIK while completing his capstone year in this very program. As if things didn’t seem like they could get any better, Terris, who was one of my first role models, is now a close friend of mine. We became really good friends over the past year and I’ll be sharing an apartment with him for the upcoming year.

Although Terris’s story was very influential in my language journey, his story wasn’t the only one that impacted me. There are multiple people around me who have inspired me, and still do to this day. Classmates, friends, family members-- people that aren’t even studying Korean are included in this list. So many stories and experiences have influenced me, impacted me and pushed me forward in a unique way.

In the same sense, this is what I dream Hawaii Korea Collaborative will become. HKC has just begun telling the stories of people living out their lives in Korea. They’re not all Korean majors like me. They’re classmates and friends, people living abroad-- each with a unique story to tell. Through the sharing of our own unique experiences, we expose pieces of our personal lives, allowing others to connect with us on an intimate level. May HKC one day have its own wall of pictures filled with faces and stories that motivate and inspire those who come and gaze upon it.

How have certain people in your life inspired and pushed you forward?