During the fall 2016 semester, international relations major senior Nora McKenna spent four months studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea. As a visitor in a completely new country, McKenna reflected positively on her acculturation.
Before leaving, McKenna prepared for Seoul with some basic research including crime rates, popular tourist destinations, critical Korean phrases and vaccination requirements. Although she had no formal education in Korean, McKenna understood that she would bridge the language gap by picking up on important sayings when consulting with students who had also traveled to South Korea in the past.
“I wanted to experience Asia with the help of college students,” McKenna said. “The language barrier would make traveling alone challenging.”
While studying in Seoul, McKenna shared an apartment with another girl from Geneseo and two French students who were also spending the semester abroad. Adjusting to her new surroundings, McKenna found herself “lost for an entire month and a half”—she was not entirely confident navigating the city until October.
Amidst her travels, McKenna noticed the superior cleanliness of the subway, in addition to the Koreans’ habit of taking photos wherever they go. In comparison to America, McKenna highlights the pervasiveness of Internet culture in South Korea. The Internet serves as a hub for Internet cafes that allow patrons to pay $10 for 11 hours on one of the company’s rows of computers.
“Nothing came as too much of a shock, but everything that seemed weird slowly became normal,” McKenna said. “You slowly get used to the way of life there and the assimilation was kind of easy because they have a decent amount of things, like menus and public transportation signs in English.”
To earn credits toward her international relations degree, McKenna pursued mostly international relations electives and political science classes at the host school in Seoul. Her favorite course at the school focused on globalization and Korean development.
As opposed to the classroom atmospheres at Geneseo, McKenna noticed that South Korean professors favored lectures over discourse and classroom participation from students. Assessing the overall learning style she observed in Seoul, McKenna characterized the approach as less of an emphasis on creative freedom and more of a demand on the focus of the material covered during class lectures.
Beyond attending classes, McKenna engaged in the tourist activities that South Korea has to offer and dedicated her recreational time—at least five days a week—to finding new museums and areas for exploring.
Although she felt like four months did not give her long enough to experience everything that she wanted to, McKenna made friends that are native to the area who introduced her to something of great importance: traditional South Korean food. Some staples of Seoul cuisine include various soups, white rice, kimchi and Korean barbeque.
“All of the places stay open so late,” McKenna said. “There is such a huge eating out culture that I never found an empty restaurant.”
Reflecting on the highpoints of her time abroad, McKenna noted visiting the demilitarized zone—or DMZ—between North and South Korea as one of her favorite and most memorable experiences in Seoul.
Before embarking on the all-day tour, participants must sign a waiver acknowledging the weight and significance of their surroundings. Throughout the day, participants have the chance to see North Korean soldiers and propaganda villages up-close, creating an immersive learning experience about the deep tension between the countries, according to McKenna.
After spending an entire semester in South Korea, McKenna’s adventures helped erase the stigma about Asia being difficult or inaccessible for studying abroad.
“I think that the best way to learn about something is to visit the place,” she said. “You can read about it, but actually experiencing the environment is completely different.”