Stories that Shaped Us: Self-Growth in Seoul, South Korea
Abigail Wellings is an ISA Seoul* alumna and a ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador whose experience abroad during the Fall 2021 semester globalized her worldview and changed the way she sees herself.
We reached out to learn more about why she chose to go abroad with ISA South Korea and how this experience continues to impact her, even after her return home. Check out her story below and hear her tips for others wanting to follow a similar path!
*: ISA’s Asia and Pacific programs are operated by our partner division within WorldStrides, TEAN, who has over 25 years of experience in the region.
When did your passion for travel and exploring other cultures begin?
I’m from a small rural town, so I will be honest — travel or exploring other cultures had never even been mentioned to me, was never been on my radar, and was only something I watched on TV. However, my junior year of high school, my friends introduced me to BTS, and the more I got to know and learn about them, the more I learned about their culture because they are so adamant about representing South Korea as a whole. I learned to love Korean culture through them, and it inspired me to look into studying abroad. They allowed me to become more consciously aware of different cultures, which led to an interest in exploring other cultures —especially ones that are vastly different from my own. By the time I started college, I was already planning to attend a spring break trip that traveled through different parts of Europe with university faculty. It unfortunately was canceled due to COVID, so that was when I officially decided to pursue a semester-long study abroad trip, and also when that passion sparked.
What inspired you to study abroad in South Korea?
BTS was the first thing that inspired me to go to South Korea, but I also fell in love with the music, language, and culture of South Korea – I even started learning Korean through self-study to prepare myself for travel. Once I began looking into different programs through my home university, I stumbled upon ISA and Korea University, and after viewing the university itself, I fell in love. The campus was breathtaking, it was in Seoul, the city I wanted to visit so badly, and they had a large selection of psychology classes at the time. Plus, all the cultural activities ISA provided really caught my attention (such as dressing in Korean hanbok, going to the Seoul Sky Observatory, and touring the Gwangjang Market). From then on, going to Korea University through ISA was completely set in stone for me, despite the setbacks from COVID.
What did you learn about yourself through these experiences and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?
This was my first time ever away from home, let alone away from my family, so I became even more independent, had a lot of self-growth, and learned a good bit about myself – including learning that I am quite adaptable. I also became very inclined to accept and adapt to challenges, especially with Korean academics. At first, getting accustomed to their academic standards was difficult and at times, stressful, but once I learned how the academics worked and how it was going to be beneficial to me, it turned into something I became used to and made me a better student once I returned home and started a new semester. Finally, I learned that I am the kind of person who will always be eager to learn about others and their culture. I know my future career is going to require me to work with people of all cultures and backgrounds and to be able to understand, comprehend, and work through what those cultures translate to in their lives, so I worked hard to communicate, relate, and understand, no matter what it took. Accepting people for who and what they are and where they come from, as well as trying to listen and understand goes a long way. All these things I learned shaped me into the person I hoped to become after studying abroad.
Did you experience any culture shock while you were in South Korea or when you came back home?
The COVID regulations were the first big culture shock for me. Masks had to be worn everywhere — even outside — and quarantine was more intense than the quarantine back home. When I returned home— after learning, getting used to, and doing things that are Korean gestures — I had some major culture shock in the airport and kind of embarrassed myself. When I entered customs, I handed the guard my passport with two hands (I got a funny look for that one). Then, another guard nodded his head at my friend and I to say hello, and I bowed to him (which is typical when greeting Koreans — not the same for Americans). This may sound silly, but they were pretty significant culture shocks after coming back from a culture such as the one in South Korea. And it may sound intense, but truly, do not worry! If anything, I think it just shows that much more that you’re willingness to adapt to a different culture that you’re not used to, and the effort you put in for becoming accustomed to it.
What was it like going abroad as a first-generation college student? Do you have any advice or tips for other first-generation college students looking to go abroad?
Nerve-wracking, but also exhilarating – I am the first in my family to have not only gone to a four-year university, but also the first to travel out of the country. Everything I learned about international travel and other countries/cultures, I learned on my own or through my university’s study abroad office and ISA. If you’re a fellow first-generation student and are unsure about study abroad, I think the simplest advice I can give you is to just take the chance. You might think you’re completely unexperienced in this or that you’re going to have to fight your way through, but neither of those are true – you know more than you think you do and you will learn rather quickly about everything you need to know once you decide to study abroad, and you are definitely not alone! You will have fellow first-gen students to relate to and lean on for support, and not to mention, the countless modes of support you have through your own university and the program you go through to study abroad. Most importantly, be very proud of yourself!
What are you up to now? How did studying abroad play a role in this?
I am currently finishing out my last semester at Frostburg State University and I have been applying to graduate school and preparing for my next steps after earning my Bachelor’s. I also recently became an ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador and will be presenting about my study abroad experience during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Maryland Collegiate Honors Conference (MCHCC) at the end of February. I know I want to eventually be a clinical psychologist, so I will take every necessary step—even if there are setbacks—to achieve that goal. Study abroad is beneficial for that career because it allowed me to become more globalized and to start to have a multicultural understanding. I realized that I want to be able to work with individuals from multiple cultures, so it encouraged me to one day receive additional training for that. As for being an ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador, it’s going to give me the opportunity to share with students on my campus about studying abroad and all the benefits that come along with it.
Any advice for students interested in going abroad to South Korea?
I recommend learning at least a little Korean before you go, as it is not only going to be helpful in communicating, but it is also going to benefit you in your trip overall because you will understand many of the signs, transportation, and information in the city. Plus, if you are anything like me, it feels cool to be able to learn another language – I love Korean and I think it’s a beautiful language! To start learning the Korean alphabet and Korean language, I highly recommend seeing if your school has Korean language courses, find a YouTube video on learning Hangul, or use this “First Step Korean” course on Coursera (which is from Yonsei University in Seoul). You will also want to download some apps specifically for Korea, such as Naver Maps, Kakao Maps, Kakao Taxi, and Papago for translation. Other than that, I recommend that once you get there, you truly take the time to immerge yourself in the culture and to genuinely learn to appreciate it because it will make you into a better person. South Korea is an incredibly diverse country with so much to see and do, so enjoy yourself and truly make the best of it! Take the time to explore, make a bucket list of places you want to visit there, and most importantly—check off those bucket list destinations! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and the time to do the things you’ve always dreamed of is now.
Inspired by Abigail’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your next adventure today!