College Years in South Korea

Bao Yang is a student at Mount Mary College and a Classmates Connecting Cultures Blogger corresponding with the Social Work Club at Mount Mary. Bao is currently studying abroad with ISA in Seoul, Korea.

Epic High -- a hiphop band in South Korea -- came to Konkuk to perform at the end of the year festival.
Epic High — a hiphop band in South Korea — came to Konkuk to perform at the end of the year festival.

We just wanted to say hello to our friends who were working at the tent, but once we got inside the group of middle-age men pulled us down to sit with them. On the long table were bottles of empty Soju and beer with bowls of multicolored fried corn chips placed in the middle of the table.

Then a middle aged man wearing a pink dress shirt walked in and sat down at the table.

He shook all of our hands then asked us our names. We replied. Then he asked if we were students of Konkuk University. We answered, yes we were. We further explained that we were members of the English Conversation Club (E.C.C.), that was hosting the restaurant tent that he was eating in. He smiled, surprised. His friend, who sat next to him explained that they were the presidents of the E.C.C. in the 80’s.

Then the man asked what our ages were. We told him. He nodded and paused before saying, “That is a good age. If I could go back to that age I would. Do things differently. I didn’t think back then. I was stupid.

But what is it like to be an emerging adult in South Korea? To go through the perils of college life? How different is it from college students in the United States?

In America most people expect teenagers to at least graduate from high school, then likely go to college, do an apprenticeship, attend technical college or get married and find a job and so on. But in South Korea, all kids are expected to graduate high school with good grades, and then go to college. Boys specifically can either fulfill their two years of service in the army before attending college or attend college then do their service.

In South Korea, ‘to get anywhere in life’ kids are expected to attend a university in Seoul. And if the student is really smart he or she should be accepted into one of the S.K.Y Universities; the equivalent of the IVY leagues in America. S.K.Y. stands for Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. As if South Korean students didn’t work hard enough, it is said that to get into one of these universities, high school students are not expected to sleep for more than 4 hours a night. If a student gets more than that amount of sleep he or she will not be able to pass the difficult entrance exam.

Going to the cherry blossoms festival at Children's Grand park a few blocks from Konkuk.
Going to the cherry blossoms festival at Children’s Grand park a few blocks from Konkuk.

But attending a university outside of the S.K.Y. Universities doesn’t mean students slacks off. The minimum amount of credits that most students at Konkuk take is 6 classes or 18 credits. In most U.S. universities 18 credits is the maximum amount of credits one can take in one semester. In addition to the high class load, many students have jobs on the side and do volunteer work. A friend of mine sometimes sleeps in the library (the 3rd floor study room is open 24 hours a day) due to studying there all day. Another friend of mine, for example, is taking a semester off to study for her pharmaceutical exam.

Unlike the United States, the Korean government does not give grants to students. Going to college is a family affair where most of the parents will fully pay for their son or daughter to attend college, living expense and so on. It is common for students to go to their parents for advice on what they should major in.

What is so different about academic college life in South Korea is that students need to already know what major they want to go into, and it is nearly impossible to switch majors once in college. College is seen as a place to attain what they are to become, whereas in the U.S. college is a place to figure out where we want to go in life.

Outside of the academic aspect of college life is the social part of being in college. A big part of college life is going out and having fun with friends.  The legal drinking age in South Korea is 19. For college students, partying with friends is important but so is school. Students go to clubs on Friday and Saturday but the rest of the week is spent studying.

Aside from the parties, there is a lot of shopping to be done. Many of the universities are also home to big shopping districts. For example, Hondae is a famous place to shop. Hondae is short for Hongik University and refers to the area around Hongik University.

Hanging out at cafes is also a big part of student life. Cafes are where students socialize and do homework. Since Sundays are homework days for many students the cafes are packed. There are a variety of specialty cafes in Seoul from cat cafes, hello kitty cafes, to book cafes and so on.

Another reason why cafes are favorite spots for studying is because they're so cute.
Another reason why cafes are favorite spots for studying is because they’re so cute.

Finally, most of the schools have festivals to celebrate the coming end of the school year. This is a time for a lot of partying, food, festivities, concerts from K-pop stars and so on.

Back to the man in the pink shirt who said, “That is a good age. If I could go back to that age I would. Do things differently. I didn’t think back then. I was stupid.” Then he smiled and said “But I haven’t been back here in a long time. Konkuk has changed. But some things don’t change. We graduate but we come back here around festival time to drink with old friends.

In that moment I realize that on the outside college life in South Korea seem so different, but in many ways it is just like U.S. college life – it has an impact on us even years after we graduate. College really is where we experience once-in-a-lifetime places, things, people, and self-realization.

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