Studying abroad? Here are tipsIn the past few years, studying abroad has slowly been gaining popularity among Korea’s young adults. Kim Ye-na, a double major in English and politics and diplomacy at Ewha Womans University, sums it up by saying, “These days, everybody studies abroad. I don’t have any friends who didn’t.”
According to research by Australia Education International, “South Korea’s desire to become the hub of Northeast Asia is causing its citizens to focus their attention on the world outside. The Korean people have a strong desire to understand the ways of the West and to become proficient in English, whether they are a child attending preschool or a CEO of a Korean jaebeol.”
Meanwhile, countries such as Great Britain are becoming more receptive to young adult international students. Tony Blair set in place the Prime Minister’s Initiative, which allows international students to work part-time after a few months of study.
According to Korea’s Ministry of Education, 159,903 Koreans studied abroad in 2003, an increase from 149,933 in 2001, and 120,170 in 1999. But before you join the growing crowd, here are some tips and information on what you can expect.
Finding a Program
To study English abroad, many students go through a yuhakwon, an institute that connects people with international English language programs, for a fee. Kim Ye-na found an English institute in London through a yuhakwon. The staff there gave her brochures and introduced her to several schools. They also found a homestay program for her. They had a list of host parent options from “elderly women” to “families with kids” and “families with pets.” It took her two weeks to prepare, and she was satisfied with the results.
Kim Gil-seok did everything on his own. “It’s more expensive when you go through a yuhakwon,” he says. “These days, you can do all your research through the Internet.”
Many embassies or their culture affiliates ― including British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand ― offer counseling services for those interested in studying abroad, whether it is at an English-language institute for a few months, or for a secondary degree at a university.
Choosing a Country and an Institute
Every country offers a different experience. And within each country, there’s the option of going to a big city or a rural town. At the age of 25, Lee Gil-seok chose London because his passion was club music, but also because he discovered that after studying for a year he would be able to get a work visa. (Government policies change, so check with the embassy.) And, through the introduction of a friend, he was able to find inexpensive schooling in London.
“Yes, the weather in London can be gloomy, but London offers value for the money, high performance and high satisfaction,” says Chang Seung-eun of the British Council.
What Mr. Lee also found was that he was able to meet people from all over the world. “Of course, there are a lot of Japanese and Chinese students, but during vacation season a lot of Italian and Spanish students would come to London to study English for a month. And more than other Asians, I really got along with Spanish people.”
Ms. Chang, who also studied English in the United Kingdom during her university years, concurs, adding that sharing a classroom was not as intimidating as she expected. “The Europeans may have a better accent, but their vocabulary is worse than ours.”
Kim Ye-na also went to London. But she found that the English she had learned in Korea was “American style.” “When I went to school, they told me stop speaking American style, and I felt like they were always looking down at us because of it.”
Kim Hyun-mi chose to study in Canada because of safety and pricing. She started in Vancouver, but moved to Kelowna, a smaller city in British Columbia. “I didn’t want to be someplace with a lot of Koreans,” she says.
Leaving the big city for a more rural area is also a trend in Australia. “Sydney is the No. 1 choice, but now Koreans are saying there are too many Koreans in classes and in the streets. South Australia is becoming a popular destination for students,” says Fiona Antonucci, the director of Australia Education International.
“Australia offers clean, wide open spaces and a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, and quality-assured education,” Ms. Antonucci says. According to Australia’s ESOS Act, any student who pays money to study in Australia can get his money back if he is not satisfied with the quality of education. And all the institutes are required to join the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, which further ensures a quality program. Countries such as England also have guidelines for international language programs.
According to the Korean Ministry of Education, the United States traditionally draws the most students. In 2003, the United States still attracted the largest number, just shy of 50,000, but that has dwindled from roughly 55,500 in 2001.
Students these days are also choosing Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and recently, Ireland. “Until a few years ago, people always thought of the Americas to study English,” Ms. Chang says. “A lot of people have relatives in the U.S. and friends in Canada. But students are becoming more sophisticated and deliberately choosing countries to match their specific needs.”
Ms. Antonucci finds that students want homestay programs. It’s a chance to better immerse oneself in a new culture. But it can come with its own set of problems.
The English-language institute that Kim Hyun-mi attended didn’t offer dormitory housing. Instead of renting an apartment, she chose a homestay program. “At first, my host parents were nice, but as time went by, they started acting like money was really tight,” Ms. Kim says. “I used to pack a lunch. They started asking me to use less cheese.” After two months, she left.
She says her experience is not unusual. A homestay can easily turn sour over the type of food and cost of food. “Some of my friends couldn’t stand eating Western food daily,” says Hong Eun-yo, who studied English in Canada for a year.
One of the expectations that many students have with a homestay is that they will be “adopted” by their hosts. “Students think they’ll be part of this welcoming family,” Ms. Hong says. But that doesn’t always pan out.
Ms. Kim recounts that some of her friends lived with families who would go out to dinner, and not invite the student. “After a while, it can begin to feel like you’re living with strangers,” Ms. Kim says.
Despite the negative stories Ms. Hong heard, she chose to do a homestay program. Her experience was wonderful, she says, and she stayed with her host family until the day she left for Korea.
Kim Ye-na also did a homestay program. While she acknowledges that sometimes host parents will prepare meals and eat separately, she lucked out. “My host parents were really kind. I went shopping with them and we ate together. I was really lucky.”
Mr. Lee went to London with a friend, and did a homestay for a week. And then he got financially savvy ― he rented a comfortable house and rented out rooms to other people.
Food, Friends and Loneliness
Initially, one of the biggest problems international students find is homesickness. “Some students commit to a year, but become so lonely they fly home early,” says Kim Hyun-mi. Ms. Kim recommends making an effort to make friends and learn as much about the new country as possible. “Enjoy yourself,” she says.
Ms. Hong started her program in January in Vancouver, “when it’s raining all the time.” She became homesick and called home often. But she forced herself to spend as little time alone as possible, and began to enjoy her stay.
Starting from the first four to six months, as the focus shifts from missing Korea to getting along in the new country, trouble integrating into a new culture can become stressful. Ms. Antonucci knows. She initially came to Korea a few years ago for an MBA at Seoul National University. “I was always a foreigner, and it made it fustrating,” she says. “It’s good to have a support network.”
When asked what she missed most about Korea, Kim Ye-na promptly responds: “Homemade food.” In London, she was able to go shopping for Korean ingredients in New Molden, the biggest Koreatown in Europe.
Studying and Speaking English
Kim Hyun-mi went to Canada for one obvious reason: to learn English. But she found that she didn’t learn as quickly as she expected.
Kim Ye-na also found this to be true. “I really like English, and I thought my English ability was quite good. But when I got there, it was difficult to communicate with native speakers.” Frustrated with what she thought was a low learning curve, she started taking additional classes.
When it came to English skills, Ms. Chang found that hers were on par. The problem was that she didn’t have anything to talk about. “English education teaches you how to think, not what to think.”
Becoming fluent in another language takes longer than a year, most students say. “Everyone tells me one year or two years is not enough to learn the whole language,” Kim Ye-na says. “Some of my friends lived in London for three or four years, but are not able to talk to native speakers.”
Ms. Kim was able to devote only a year to studying English in London; she returned to Korea to finish her undergraduate degree. “It was worth it,” she says. “After studying abroad, I decided to double major in English. Before, I was embarrassed to speak English. I’m more confident now.”
“Study English as much as you can before leaving. People think that by just going abroad, your English skills will improve miraculously. It still takes work.”
“Find out what life is like in the country before you leave.”
“Make the most of being abroad. Don’t just shuttle back and forth between the English institute and your housing. And don’t just study out of your textbook. Talk to people, in English. Learn as much as you can about the new culture. And make friends, not just Korean friends.”
“If you’re staying longer than a few months, learn some practical skills. The U.K. has a lot of continuing education courses. Get a certificate and pad your resume. It’s an investment in yourself.”
This fall, several embassies have scheduled education fairs for prospective students. Recruitment representatives are invited to join and answer any questions prospective students may have. On-site advice, ranging from essays to portfolios, is often given. While the Canadian education fair was held a few weeks ago, others are coming up. The British Council has invited education representatives for its 14th Education UK Exhibition on Saturday and Sunday at Seoul Plaza Hotel. The Australia-New Zealand Education Exhibition is slated for Oct. 30 to 31 at the COEX InterContinental Hotel.
Australia Education International www.aei.or.kr
British Council www.britishcouncil.org/kr/home.htm
Canadian Studies Program www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/world/embassies/korea/academic-en.asp
Irish Embassy www.irelandhouse-korea.com/embassy.html
New Zealand Embassy www.nzembassy.com/home.cfm?c=8
U.S.A. Embassy seoul.usembassy.gov
by Joe Yonghee