12 Secrets to Studying Abroad in Seoul
How I Studied Abroad With No Regrets
Time waits for no one. No matter how much you’d like to, we’ll never be able to travel back in time. Having said that, because we’re trying to make the most of our younger years, the worst thing would be to feel regret over missed opportunities. Opportunities help shape our identity, they teach us valuable lessons that let us grow into the ideal version of ourselves. This past semester, I attended Seoul National University in South Korea as an exchange student from Hawaii. While living there for 195 days, I encountered opportunities on a daily basis, ones which I knew I never would have been able to experience back home. For those of you who have yet to make plans to study abroad, I want to light that fire of curiosity in you, like others had done for me years ago. As for the adventurous bunch who have already made plans, I’ll let you in on a few things, which I have personally deemed most important during my experience. So here it is ladies and gentlemen, boy and girls, strap yourselves in and take notes cause it’s about to get insightful up in ‘dis blog post!
To start things off, I’m going to try to stay away from cliché tips like “try new things”, “eat new foods”, and even “go new places”, because come on, while in a new place everything you eat, see, and do will be a new experience. What I’m saying is, it’s a good start, but we need to dig deeper.
ONE: talk to exchange students that arrived a semester before you
Talk to them about things they wish they had done more during their first semester. Smart right? It’s like asking your friends for answers on a test they already took. Not like I’ve ever done that before… Everyone is different so it would be good to ask more than just one person and look for recurring answers. For example, a few of the second semester veterans I talked to during one of my first weeks, all expressed they had regretted not joining any clubs during their first semester. Which gets into my next point....
TWO: join a sh*t ton of campus clubs
...and don’t hold back. You’ll be surprised what you didn’t know you’d enjoy. It’s not always about the subject of the club, sometimes happiness can come from just the amazing people you meet and spend that time with. During the first few weeks of school, clubs with subjects ranging from scuba diving to card magic to anime drawing set-up tents around campus and hand out recruitment fliers. The recruiters will want you to join their club, but may be shy when it comes to interacting with foreigners, so go with your friends and be brave. I ended up joining a baseball team, a soccer team, and a video production club. I was even interested in their astronomy club but couldn’t fit it into my schedule. While playing soccer I fell down twice on the same knee, leaving a scar the size of a ripe plum. But I learned just how competitive I could be in a place where no one knew my name. In baseball no matter how many times my bat made contact with that ball it never travelled forward, only backwards. But by going to practice regularly I was able to make friends that could last a lifetime. As for the video production club, which I wanted to join the most at the time, they made me like their Facebook page and then never got back to me. Of course at first I was disappointed, but I couldn't be happier with the way things turned out. If it happens to you, don’t be discouraged! Join another club! Someone out there is dying to be your friend I promise.
THREE: exercise in advance
This one is a small one, but if you are interested in joining an athletically demanding club, make sure the last time you had any exercise was not four months prior. It’s scientifically proven by Dr. Me that you’re bound to get hurt.
FOUR: don’t be intimidated
Don’t be intimidated to join clubs/make friends just because of your language speaking level. This was a common regret among the 2nd semester exchange students that I had met. As uncomfortable as it may seem, it can only help you. While abroad, I made a friend who also happened to be from Hawaii, let’s call him Jeff, who joined the Ukulele club and became their only foreign member. Jeff did not speak a lick of Korean and yet his club would invite him out for dinner and drinks, one of the best ways to make friends in Korea. When I asked Jeff about his experience, he admits, “it was incredibly terrifying,” but also points out “you're a student to learn and grow, so if you're studying abroad, that should always be on your mind”. While improving his ukulele and Korean skills Jeff even became friends with a student who had made plans to study abroad in Hawaii, all good things!
FIVE: don’t forget your manners
Things can get a little crazy when you’re in a new environment surrounded by people you’ll never have to see again. And when I say crazy, I mean loads of fun. Like, sneaking onto rooftops kind fun. Despite this, always remember that you represent where you came from, so be respectful. Learn how to say “Thank you” and “I’m sorry”. It will come in handy a lot more than you think for daily tasks, such as ordering food or catching a cab. Learn the cultural differences to avoid embarrassment or offending someone (important).
On a related side note, try not to get offended when old people stare at you. Perhaps they’ve just never seen such a beautiful creature as yourself before. I had an experience on the subway where this old Korean man next to me wouldn’t stop turning to look at me every 10 seconds. It wasn't the first time this had happened, so I let my assumptions get the best of me and I started to get irritated. I thought of staring back at him when suddenly he approached me with a smile, and started talking to me in perfect English. He had noticed my jacket read “Seoul National University”, and started telling me about his prized daughter who also attended my school. Anyway, I was a little ashamed, so these days I just smile back.
SIX: watch your head
If you are 6ft and above, this step may just save your life.
SEVEN: keep some kind of journal
I cannot stress how much you will wish you could pull up every memory/experience at the flip of a page. Everyday, you’ll be doing new things, so not only will the semester breeze by, but it can be easy to forget. If you feel like writing a journal is too much work for you, just write one thing you’ve done that day and perhaps something you’ve eaten (You can thank me later). As the semester comes to an end, it's good to reflect and look back to some of your first journal thoughts to see how your views have changed.
EIGHT: stay out all night a few times
And don't come home until the sun rises (with friends advised). No one remembers the nights they got good sleep.
NINE: don’t always go to class.
But don’t fail them and blame me.
TEN: if you don’t go to class, don’t do it because you want to stay in bed
Do it because you’re too adventurous to be kept within those classroom walls. Travel around instead and meet up with the friends you’ve made. The things you learn that help you in life tend not to be learned in a classroom.
ELEVEN: make an effort to learn the native language
Learning the native language allows you to interact with your environment, brings you closer to the culture, and just simply makes life easier. If you’re the kind of person that loves ordering food on a lazy day, you're gonna have to, oh god don't say it, speak with another human being, only now in a different language. If you plan to live in the dorms, chances are your roommate will be a native speaker. It’s a good compliment to the native speakers when you can show that you’re putting in the effort. Language can also reveal certain aspects about the culture that you couldn’t have learned otherwise. You may be discouraged when you find that some foreigners make speaking look easy, but this shouldn’t do anything but encourage you. These people have put in the time into learning, and you should too.
TWELVE: just be open
Being open is the mindset which encompasses advice like trying new things, eating new foods, and seeing new places. It allows you to accept new people, cultures, and ideas. The more open you are, the more you can learn. Share your thoughts with others as well; you’d be surprised how similar some of the people you meet may be. Studying abroad is like getting to start over that first day of school that you may have hated. Except this time puberty has kicked in, and you're cooler than you were before... right? It’s a rare occasion where people around your age are all desperately looking for friends. But hey, no pressure. It’s okay that some connections may fade out - ultimately you decide who to surround yourself with, and not everyone is a match made in heaven.
And lastly, the most important tip of all: figure things out for yourself. I don’t mean it like, “hey man, no cheating, do it yourself”. I mean it in respect the fact that there is no better person than yourself to decide what is right for you and what is not. I know this defeats the purpose of my hopefully helpful advice, but all I want you to do is to take what I’ve shared and make it your own. By the end of your journey, you should be thinking “I am happy with the way my choices have affected me”. I want you all to have the best experience you can possibly have, so just remember: No regrets.
To end I’ll leave you with messages from my mom:
[Mom] [5:09 AM] you have soooo many great memories & friendships that you gained
[Mom] [5:09 AM] the treasures of life
[Mom] [5:10 AM] like many different shapes & colors of beautiful shells
[Mom] [5:11 AM] you will keep them forever