Often it's the experiences that push us out of our routines and comfort zones that help us to grow the most as students, individuals, and citizens of the world. It is around this very notion that the Center for International Education has built the UW-Eau Claire study abroad program into one of the most robust and successful in the country, among comparable sized universities.
Junior English education major Megan Peterson certainly found this to be true of her recent study abroad experience in Suwon, South Korea. Through the combined support of the CIE office and the on-campus residence life in Korea, Megan felt prepared to immerse herself in this culture and learning opportunity, and opened herself up to all the possibilities for growth it would bring her.
Just after finals in May, Megan took a little time to paint a picture for us about her time in South Korea, and to help us convey to fellow and future Blugolds just how valuable study abroad can be as a part of the student journey.
Did you always want to do study abroad, or was it something you decided to do after seeing how other students were making that happen?
I have always wanted to travel, and I knew that college would be the perfect time to see new parts of the world with the kind of scaffolding support a university offers. One of the reasons I picked Eau Claire was because it had a reputation as being a school with fantastic study abroad programs.
One of the things I was looking for in a study abroad program was an immersive experience in an environment completely different than the one I am used to. Some of the appealing things about Korea were, first, that I knew that I would experience a day-to-day culture unlike that of America, second, that I would be figuring out how to communicate in a language I did not know, and finally that I would be living in the school dormitories with Korean students so I knew I would not be isolated or separated as a foreigner.
Through some research, I also found that South Korea has really good programs for foreign teachers who speak English as their native language to come and teach English in Korea. I have always wanted to teach abroad, one of the reasons I am a TESOL minor, and so I thought that it would be particularly useful to experience the potential culture shock beforehand, to begin learning Korean, and to meet people in Korea so that I would have a better idea whether or not the Korean teaching programs were something I would want to go forward with after graduation.
Tell us a bit about the educational and cultural differences you found, and more importantly, how that as impacted your overall experience.
The biggest differences I had to adjust to were small things, differences in social cues and etiquette that weren’t explained to me beforehand that I learned generally through making mistakes. Through my experiences, I learned how important it was to take off my shoes when I entered a room, to show respect to anyone older than me, to pay and to receive gifts with two hands, not to counter anything a teacher said during class, and the manner with which to respectfully ride a subway.
Learning these things, and more, showed me that people live in many different ways, and the parts of my culture which I may take for granted as common sense or universal definitely aren’t. It helped me to reexamine my own culture, and analyze closer why I do things the way I do. It also helped me build a lot more confidence. I made mistakes, but those mistakes always lead to future successes, and the fact that I could find my way on my own in a country I had only begun to try to navigate and understand made me realize that I am a lot more capable than I would have given myself credit for.
If you had to pinpoint the most important thing you learned from your time there, what would that be?
The most important thing I learned by studying in Korea, is that the world is so incredibly large, and it’s important that people realize that. I was amazed by what sort of things were different in Korea, what ideas I had taken for granted and what ideas were taken for granted there. I was surprised by all the things I found that contrasted with America, and a lot of the things which I had not expected that were the same. Without having traveled and lived in Korea I know that there would be a lot of inexplicable things that I would never be able to really understand about the country, it’s culture, and it’s people, and having experienced this I realize that the same is true for every other country across the globe. In order to live in a world in which the future of every nation is becoming more and more connected, I think having as many experiences to draw from about perspectives other than one’s own is incredibly useful, if not essential.
What would you say to future or current Blugolds about study abroad? About Korea? Advice about making it happen and how to prepare academically and culturally for the experience.
I would say that it’s definitely an incredible experience, and that if there is any possible way to make study abroad work with your degree plan and finances, do it.
For academics, first, definitely talk to your advisor. They can help you figure out how to work study abroad into your degree plan and can give you contacts to visit for more information about specific programs. The study abroad fair was also incredibly helpful. It puts all the programs in one room, with a person who has experienced it first hand to give you advice. You can speak to people who have been to any country you’re interested in visiting, and you can also look at year, semester, summer, and Winterim programs all in one spot. And finally, look into studying abroad early. If you can go earlier in your college career, you can find GE classes abroad in a variety of countries, and it isn’t as likely to conflict with your major requirements. Planning early gives you a bigger variety of places and experiences to choose from, and you can still plan to go later in your college career if you find a program that works with your major.
Culturally, I would suggest jumping in headfirst and trying not to have too many expectations about what you will or won’t find. Another country, especially one as far away as South Korea, is going to have a lot of aspects which differ from home. If you are willing to accept all those differences as simply different, without trying to compare them to life at home, you will be better able to appreciate the culture for what it is in its own right. Go to every event you can, talk to as many people as you can, and take advantage of where you are. Even if it’s just going to a coffee shop off campus to study, everyday life abroad can provide some of the most valuable experiences!