SPI social media guru/intern Jeeah Kim is about to return to her home country of South Korea after finishing her degree in International Relations and Global Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Before we send her off with a pocket full of well-wishes, we wanted to get her reflections about her study abroad experience in the US.
Q: You left your home country of South Korea to study abroad in the US. What made you decide to come to Austin, TX?
A: I always knew I wanted to study abroad in college. In fact, I actually never saw myself living in the same country for the rest of my life. Studying abroad seemed like a great way to test the waters and see if I liked living in a particular country and/or city while working towards my degree and without spending too much money.
Some of my friends in Korea went to other countries (even though they hadn’t studied the language at all!). I wasn’t brave enough to surround myself with people who speak languages I don’t understand, so I chose to come to the USA. I despise cold weather and, in addition to English, love the Spanish language so my options boiled down to California or Texas. Since California’s economy was struggling when I was deciding where to go, I felt Texas would be a better choice. To be honest, I knew nothing about Austin specifically, but I trusted my gut feeling.
Q: How did your initial year of studying abroad at the University of Texas impact your life?
A: It helped me realize how self-centered my life had been and how little I knew about the world. I lived in the US when I was younger, and I flew back to visit four times after I left; these experiences made me think I knew a lot about it. Wrong. I didn’t know how to go anywhere — campus, grocery shopping, *fill in the blank*.
At least, I felt very confident about my English communication skills. I had been told my English ranked top 0.1% in Korea, so the language barrier was the last thing I worried about. I quickly came to realize that it isn’t all about knowing the language, but it’s also about the culture.
A funny example: Someone invited a group of people to go to a pool party. People started responding “I’m up” and “I’m down” which confused me! I finally had to ask a friend if the “up people” are going or if the “down people” are going. The accumulation of these moments are what taught me that interacting with locals is crucial to truly understanding the culture and language of a country.
Q: Prior to studying abroad in college, did you have any travel experiences in high school?
A: Yes, I actually did! In my second year of high school (equivalent to junior year in the States), I participated in a global leadership program in New York and Washington D.C. for three weeks. It was a program that gave teens a high-quality model United Nations experience. It was an amazing experience, and even beyond international politics, I learned life lessons and made life-long friends.
I still keep in touch with many of the friends I made in 2008, and it’s incredible following their success. Since then, it’s been very motivating to hear what people my age around the world are doing to prepare for their future. They give me the opportunity to pause for some self-reflection and think about what I really want in life. Some of them that are in graduate school or already working on their career continue to give me advice today.
This experience also helped me go beyond simply “studying abroad” in college. I didn’t need weeks in advance to prepare myself because, with the experience in high school, I already knew it’s what I wanted to do. I felt comfortable with the idea of leaving home and challenging myself more. For example: as an exchange student, I became a committee member for the biggest biannual event of one of the top student organizations on campus. Nobody else I came to study abroad with even joined a student organization. I can confidently say I had a richer experience than an average study abroad student—not because I’m smarter or more outgoing than others but because I prepared myself beforehand.
Q: What role do you think social media plays in a student’s study abroad experience?
A: I think it can work both ways: to enhance the experience or really hurt it.
If you’re already active on social media, I want to advise you against it during the time abroad. It connects you back to home, but that means you’re not really enjoying the moment surrounding you. Honestly, just use it to show how awesome your life abroad is once a week or so. Isn’t that how most people use social media anyway? If you spend an hour every day scrolling through your newsfeed, you only think about everything you’re missing out on back home. If you were there, however, it really wouldn’t be that awesome so don’t waste your time and energy thinking about it!
I think the best way to utilize social media is to use it as an additional method of building your foreign language skills. My social media is 99% of the language spoken in the country I am currently in. This is because I think of social media as another platform to connect with the people around me.
Q: You plan to head back to South Korea soon to begin your professional career. How will knowing a second language (English) help you?
A: Not knowing English is not an option — being fluent in it gives me a tremendous advantage. In fact, the majority of companies with entry level job postings in Korea require three parts on your application: College, GPA, and English score. So basically, English is one of the top three resume filters for most jobs and, if not, it is the biggest plus factor. That said, it’s important to understand that just knowing English is not good enough either. Having good communication skills is an obvious must. These days in Korea, having some knowledge in even a third language is expected, and there are many people who are conversational in three.
The best choice I think I made was making friends who know nothing about Korea. I had amazing conversations telling people about my country, and the best part is that I had to explain everything in English. You’ll be surprised by how patient people are with your struggles trying find the right word or saying things in a funky way. Also, it’s important to be open to feedback and criticism; tell them that you want them to correct you if you say something wrong, and ask them how they would word it.
Q: What advice would you have for a student interested in studying abroad?
A: First of all, do it! Especially if you want to become successful in your future career. It isn’t just about the language or the country you’ve been to — it’s incredible how many more people you can relate to having had that experience. Short-term traveling is an alternative, but temporary stays limit your opportunities to make friends and really absorb the culture. Study abroad is a perfect mix of investing in a language and also getting to know the local culture.
I also want to tell them to mingle with locals and people with different backgrounds. It’s very unfortunate when international students choose to only hang out with each other. Worse are people who only hang out with people that came from their own country. I understand, it’s scary to be surrounded with the unknown, but you’re there to experience that foreign discomfort! There’s no need to avoid people from your country, but make that extra effort to interact with people unlike you. Doing this taught me a lot about my own country and myself; much of what I took for granted is interesting to people from other cultures
From all of us here at SPI Study Abroad: Go Rock the World, Jeeah!