Stories that Shaped Us: 대한민국, Global Languages, and My Identity as a Global Citizen
Deborah Amarachi Okoli studied abroad with Veritas in Seoul, South Korea. She is an alumnae of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she’s returning back to UIC’s campus this fall to start medical school. We reached out to see how her time abroad has impacted her personal and professional growth. Read below to hear what she had to say!
When did your passion for travel and exploring other cultures begin?
Personally, I believe it is more than a passion for simply traveling and exploring other cultures. I would say that my interest in traveling and exploring other cultures is founded upon my self-identification as a “global citizen.” My passion for all things global—global health, global languages, global affairs, and global missions—stems from my early exposure to and experiences with programs geared towards global service, specifically service of underprivileged children. My parents would often sponsor a child from overseas through Compassion International, inspiring me to collect coins to send to the United Nations as an eight-year-old girl. Throughout elementary and middle school, my school would participate in an annual program called Operation Christmas Child, to send school supplies, clothing, and gifts of comfort to underprivileged children all over the world; it was actually one of the highlights of my early years.
Also during my early years, I would often serve at an organization called Feed My Starving Children, where I found great joy in packaging nutritious food for the benefit of children like myself who were suffering from starvation all over the world. Furthermore, I have always dreamed of becoming a physician and one day working with organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations, especially UNICEF, to hopefully travel to places where people do not have access to healthcare and use my skills to heal people and alleviate their pain and suffering due to the affliction of disease. Working with my father to support orphaned children in the Hope Children Center of Faisalabad, Pakistan, which he co-founded, and working on a community development project that sought to establish a garment industry for a community of oppressed and marginalized Christians in Pakistan made me feel even more connected to people, mostly children, who are thousands of miles away from me. It made me realize that I could make a significant difference in the lives of disadvantaged children in ways that could improve their health and life. I believe that all of these early experiences have served as the bedrock for my great interest in learning about the world and contributing to its enrichment.
What inspired you to study abroad in Seoul, South Korea?
I strongly believe in the power of immersion when it comes to learning a language. Studying the Korean language in its native country, I believed, would provide an invaluable experience that would greatly cement my understanding of the Korean language and ability to speak it with native citizens. South Korea aside, the reason I pursued a study abroad opportunity is that I saw study abroad as one of the most tangible ways for me to achieve a well-rounded, globally-minded college education and gain a more globally-minded perspective on life by learning about the culture and way of life of the South Korean society. I believed that the experience I would take away from my time there would impact multiple aspects of my life, from how I plan to practice medicine as a future physician-scientist to how I plan to relate with others both as a national and global citizen.
I suppose that naturally the next question would be why I decided to start learning Korean in the first place, on my own no less! There is actually a bit of an interesting backstory. There is something about languages and the art of learning them that has always intrigued me, and I grew up in a household where learning different languages was both natural and encouraged. My parents speak English as well as Igbo, the latter of which is their native language. I speak French with my mother, both of us having learned in school, and have had the opportunity to communicate with French natives and French-speakers both in America and South Korea. I also learned Spanish for seven years in school and often spoke the language with patients I was privileged to meet and assist when I was a hospital volunteer in college. So, it is safe to say, I think, that the usage of multiple languages permeates many aspects of my life! There is something about speaking to people in their native language, especially in a hospital setting, where people are often the most vulnerable, that allows people to open up and express themselves more, fostering deeper connections and positive relations, both of which I have observed and experienced myself!
All of that to say that after studying French and Spanish, I always knew that I wanted to learn a new language, as a continuation of my language-learning journey. I did not know that the next language I would learn would be Korean! But, in 2019, I discovered the Korean band 방탄소년단, or more globally known as BTS. I was drawn to 방탄소년단 because of the band’s inspiring music, contribution to enhancing the wellbeing of children all around the world, and the positivity and character of each of the individual band members. My Korean language learning journey has been particularly enjoyable, partly because I have been learning on my own since 2019 and outside of a formal course until this past summer. Thinking about it now, it seems fortunate that the native language of 방탄소년단 is Korean. Throughout my journey of learning the members’ native language, I have discovered and continue to discover that many individuals whom I know personally speak the language–from classmates and friends I met in college to fellow church members to a dear retired hospital nurse with whom I had been volunteering for nearly two years before knowing she spoke Korean!
Learning Korean, as inspired both by my interest in 방탄소년단 and my passion for global languages, has not only educated me on Korean culture, history, and society, but it has also bridged the gap between me and many individuals in my life with whom I had not been as close in the past. Many of these friends, my retired nurse friend in particular, have gone great lengths to assist me in my Korean language learning journey, often gifting me with Korean language, culture, and history books that I have used to supplement my individual education of Korean society. Gifts like these are special to me, not only because they are a tangible reminder of how our friendships have grown so much more through a shared language, but also because they have helped me continue to find joy in learning the Korean language.
What did you learn about yourself through these experiences and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?
One thing I learned about myself through my experiences in South Korea is that no matter how much individual study I do on my own about a society and culture different from my own native society and culture, there are certain aspects that are best learned through experience. This informed in part the reason I felt it was particularly important to study abroad in the country where the language I was learning was the dominant language. I learned that language is often a reflection of a country’s history and identity and as such, when learned, helps me understand how individuals from backgrounds vastly different from mine see the world.
As such, I take immense joy in working to become well-versed in different languages. I believe that languages say so much about a person’s culture, lifestyle, and interpretation of the world. Therefore, to understand fellow human beings from around the world, I think, requires an understanding of and degree of utility with their languages. Languages are a bridge. One can learn so much just by being able to converse with people in their own language, or at least in making an effort to do so. I would never want to become a person who thinks that her native country is all that there is to the world; I have never been that type of person all of my life! Therefore, my affinity for learning various languages has grown into a passion for me. Doing so helps me build empathy with others and solidifies the fact that people are as similar to each other as they are different, perhaps even more similar than different.
Could you briefly touch on your experience traveling and interning abroad during Covid-19, and any insights, growth, or lessons in resilience you may have gained due to these challenges?
Studying abroad in South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic made it such that the experience was incredibly unique, both in its associated challenges and opportunities. It is important to note that my study abroad was the first time I had ever been away from my parents outside of the United States, during a global pandemic no less! In that sense, I definitely matured quite a bit living on my own in a foreign country in a precarious time, especially during my two-week quarantine at the very start of the program. In terms of resilience, I learned that if you really want to achieve something, you can and will make it happen, regardless of the extenuating circumstances that may make it seem impossible to achieve. I spoke to many individuals who are older and wiser than I before I traveled, about whether this was the right time to study abroad.
Ultimately, the choice was my own to make, and I decided that instead of giving up because the situation was unideal, I would pursue this dream of mine and make it work by adapting to the situation around me and finding joy in the things I accomplished, regardless of whether or not COVID-19 had an impact on them. My host university 고려대학교 (Korea University) certainly demonstrated this resilience, by working hard to ensure that my fellow study abroad classmates and I were able to complete our courses, particularly our language courses, in such a way that our learning experiences were not diminished by the constraints of the pandemic. Furthermore, the International Studies Abroad (ISA) and WorldStrides teams worked tirelessly to facilitate our immersion into Korean culture by providing multiple opportunities to truly explore the country and take in its beauty.
My time abroad also taught me about making the most of every experience, to waste no opportunity and to work to create something positive out of what would otherwise have been lost. The COVID-19 pandemic actually disrupted my then long-held plan to study abroad in 2020 and forced me to challenge myself in ways that I otherwise might not have, by channeling my attention and energy to turn a disappointment into an opportunity in order make the most of an unideal situation — the disappointment of not being able to study abroad for the purpose of gaining an international cultural experience and a global perspective before embarking on my medical training. I did not realize it at first, but it soon became clear to me that my inability to travel abroad to study at that time presented an opportunity to advance a greater cause, one that also ties into my mission in life — global health and global peace, which I had, in fact, considered as an alternative to the study abroad program, but had put off for later in the future. My interest in global languages stems from the same passion that informs my interest in philanthropy that would address the healthcare needs of people who could least afford it and community development that would improve health for people globally.
When I realized this, I used the opportunity to co-found a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization—the ZimUzo Foundation—with my father and brother, dedicated to advancing educational and community development, by leveraging technology to enhance education of youth, improve health, and augment local resources, often grossly inadequate or nonexistent in rural communities in parts of the world, Africa and Asia specifically. COVID-19 challenged me with a greater sense of urgency to meet the needs of the chronically disadvantaged, who were even more vulnerable due to the pandemic—indigents, orphans, and the destitute, who have no access to masks or basic health services.
As one of the foundation’s program directors, I often think about how almost nothing can be achieved in life without resilience and tenacity; this truth has driven my passion in the work that our organization has been able to do to advance the global human condition, and it certainly inspired and drove me to make the most of my time in Korea. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, my time in Korea truly was a healing experience. From exploring 남이섬 (Nami Island) and hiking the 남한산성 (Namhansanseong Fortress) with new friends (my very first hike ever!) to embarking on solo strolls through 경의선숲길 (Gyeongui Line Forest Park) and the halls of the 국립중앙박물관 (National Museum of Korea) and the 전쟁기념관 (War Memorial of Korea), I feel that I both gave and received so much from my experiences there.
Did your time studying abroad influence your professional development?
My time studying abroad most certainly influenced my professional development. As a current first year medical student, I have long understood the importance of infiltrating medical practice with empathy and humanity. Living in South Korea for six weeks, a short but full experience, allowed me to put faces to the language that I have been learning for over two years now. Before my study abroad experience, I was only learning about Korea from afar. By living there, I had many opportunities to speak Korean with natives and struggle sometimes in doing so; conversely, during many of these times, I inadvertently gave the natives I met the opportunity to speak English with me and struggle sometimes in doing so. It was a shared struggle, but a benign struggle, because as I said before, languages are a bridge through which one can learn so much about another, even through the simple act of making an effort to do so. I know that these struggles have built my empathy for others and will certainly inform my practice when I hopefully have the opportunity to work with patients from all walks of life.
What’s your favorite part of your Veritas program, and what would you tell any student looking to participate in a study abroad program in the future?
I chose to study abroad with Veritas, because I knew that I would not only be getting an opportunity to participate in an academic program abroad with an incredible host university, but I would also be getting the opportunity to participate in a missions program and develop my faith in a foreign context, as my faith ultimately informs how I see the world and minister to the people around me. Having the opportunity to get connected with a Korean church and meet fellow Korean Christians was a highlight of the program for me.
To prospective study abroad students, I would give some advice. First, be flexible, adaptable, and prepared for change–not just during a global pandemic but anytime! If not for adaptability, paired with optimism and resilience, I do not believe that I would have had an experience as memorable as the one I had this summer, despite the constraints. I would also advise to not forget that one embarks on a study abroad to learn not just in the classroom but from the environment and people around them. As much as I learned from my classroom studies, I gained even more valuable experiences from my life outside of the classroom.
My third piece of advice would be to commit to accomplish something during one’s study abroad, great or small, for a purpose greater than oneself. I believe that embarking on a study abroad should naturally involve an understanding that there is a world bigger than one’s own world, and I think that if I had been more selfish during this study abroad, I would never feel satisfied with all the opportunities that came to me during this short time. Adopting an attitude of humility, willingness to serve, and desire to learn allowed me the opportunity to learn many valuable lessons and meet so many wonderful people, which was truly a blessing to me.
I would like to take a moment to thank the many people who were involved in making my study abroad journey both possible and memorable: the ISA and WorldStrides staff and program coordinators, specifically Crystal Giedt, Jessica Korn, 이민희씨 (Lee Minhee), and 장의수씨 (Chang Euisoo); 고려대학교 and the International Summer Campus staff; the 고려대학교 CJ International Student House residential staff, specifically 제니씨, as well as the security staff, maintenance staff, and cleaning staff, who all worked very hard to keep the study abroad students safe from COVID-19 during our time at the university; my 고려대학교 intermediate Korean language professor 박영지 선생님씨, who was particularly helpful and encouraging to me as I took my first official Korean language course this summer, playing a great role in the facilitation of the significant strides I made in learning the Korean language; the quarantine staff at the STAZ Hotel 명동 (Myeongdong) II, specifically 현지씨, 제씨, and 운지씨, who all went great lengths to accommodate the study abroad students and look after our wellbeing; the 성북구 Office self-quarantine monitoring team, specifically 이다예씨 (Lee Daye), who worked to make sure the students stayed healthy throughout quarantine; the 기사님씨who helped students get to their COVID-19 test appointments and waited patiently with us; the COVID-19 test workers who despite the dangerous summer heat worked hard to administer COVID-19 tests at outdoor testing sites and at the National Medical Center; the 인천국제공항(Incheon International Airport) staff for guiding the study abroad students safely to our destinations both to and from Seoul, especially the staff at the baggage service team who helped me retrieve my delayed luggage upon arrival, as well as the flight attendants who did their best to keep us comfortable during our long flights; 기사님씨, whose name I have forgotten but who kindly transported me to the quarantine facility during my hectic first day in Seoul (장의수씨would know about this!); 고성규 기사님씨, who drove three of us study abroad students to the airport on our last day in Seoul despite heavy traffic and was very kind and patient with us; the subway sanitation workers and cleaning staff, who worked hard to keep the trains clean and protect passengers from the virus; the 주시카고총영사관 (Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Chicago), for assisting me in the process of acquiring the necessary documents to travel to Korea and making the process an amicable one; and the staff at 하나은행 (Hana Bank), who kindly and patiently helped me through the process of currency exchange, one of my first concerns upon arrival in Seoul.
I would also like to thank my friend Dexter Reasons for taking so many wonderful photos of me and of the beautiful places we visited together as featured in this blog and being a wonderful exploration partner; my mission mentor 에밀리 (Emily), who was not only a source of wisdom and spiritual guidance for me but also a friend in whom I could confide; my friend Anna from our missions practicum program, who inspired me with her kindness, hard work during our time abroad, and desire to succeed and pursue her goals; Danielle, Emily’s roommate, who was very kind to me and my friends and from whom I received much wisdom; the staff at 나무 카페(Namu Café), who always worked hard to provide a comfortable environment for our missions practicum group to hold our Bible studies; 조현정씨, whom I met through my mission mentor in Korea and who has become both a dear and an inspiring friend to me; my dormitory suitemates Allison (for always looking out for me) and Isabella (for inspiring me as someone much younger than me taking on a study abroad!); for all the staff at 본도시락 (Bon Dosirak) and 한솥도시락 (Hansot Dosirak), who were so kind and always took the time to carefully prepare delicious lunchbox meals for me after long days of adventure and subway rides; the friendly staff at 노브랜드 버거(NBB) as well as the Trazy food delivery service staff who patiently delivered food to me even when
I was sometimes late; the CU convenience store staff next to the university who helped me load my subway card, without which many of my adventures would not have been possible; the two staff members at the 국립중앙박물관 (National Museum of Korea) whose names I have unfortunately forgotten but whose kindness and willingness to assist me in making the most of my time there I have not forgotten; the staff at HYBE INSIGHT, who went great lengths to ensure that I and many others had a memorable experience at the HYBE museum; 김훈식씨, an inspirational staff member whom Dexter and I met at the 남한산성 (Namhansanseong Fortress), who took the time to make us feel welcome and inspire us with his life story; the friendly UNICEF volunteers I met in Seoul, as well as 임태진씨from the UNICEF Seoul Liaison Office, who took the time to answer my questions even though I could not visit the office in person; the workers at 다이소 (Daiso) and 홈플러스 (Homeplus), who always took the time to assist me during my frequent visits; Miss Debora (Debora Hair Braid) and Miss Lee (Itaewon Beauty Shop), who helped me make my hair and were kind enough to take the time to help me not get lost in 이태원(Itaewon); the 고려대학교Crimson Store and Uni Store staff, who helped me find and purchase items to take home as memorabilia of my time at the university; Melissia 실장님씨, who was so kind and inspiring to me; 김Daniel씨and 김Grace씨from Gospel City as well as 박Daniel씨 from 온느리 교회(Onnuri English), who all worked to help me find a church home during my short stay in Korea; and, the 여의도 영어 교회 (Yoido English Ministry) staff for helping me find a place (albeit remotely) in their church home, especially Allecia씨.
Finally, I would like to thank my parents, who despite their worries trusted me enough to complete this study abroad on my own; my mentors, especially Mrs. Okafo, Mrs. Osobamiro, Mrs. Taiwo, Mrs. Chance, Mrs. Budina, and Pastor Ike, for listening to me, praying with me, and giving me wise counsel throughout my journey towards my study abroad; and my wonderful Korean friends—especially 현애 (Hyunae), 한별언니 (Hanbyoel), and 재원 (Olivia Jaewon)—who have helped me learn their beautiful language since 2019 (a journey that is far from over!). Everyone worked tirelessly to help my fellow study abroad students and I have a memorable experience in Korea, for which I would like to express my sincere gratitude. 여러분 정말 감사합니다~