Alumni Spotlight: Christian Valdez

Stories that Shaped Us: Finding New Friends and New Perspectives Abroad

Christian Valdez is a TEAN Seoul alumnus and an ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador at the University of Central Florida whose experience abroad during the Summer of 2021 not only introduced him to life abroad in South Korea and new friends, but new perspectives on life.

We reached out to learn more about why he chose to go abroad with TEAN South Korea and how his experience abroad last summer has impacted him. Check out his unique story below and hear his advice for others wanting to follow a similar path!

My roommates and I breaking cultural mannerisms for a brief moment in front of Gyeonghweru Pavilion.

What inspired you to study abroad last summer, and why did you choose Seoul, South Korea?

I wish there was a deeper answer to why I chose Seoul, South Korea but the truth is that my family and I have a love for K-dramas and BTS. Investing time, energy, and even money into those things spiraled into an interest in Korean culture and a desire to visit the country. Studying abroad also wasn’t something that I planned to do. It wasn’t until I got a newsletter from my university that mentioned study abroad programs that I was enticed by the idea. I was also originally supposed to move to Orlando at the start of 2020, but all of my classes switched to remote instruction because of the pandemic, which took an entire year away from my time at UCF. Coming into 2021, I was at a point where I was feeling “stuck.” It was then that my motivation for wanting to study abroad shifted.  

The pandemic took a small portion of my life away, and I guess I just wanted to take a small portion of life back. I don’t know how things would’ve turned out if COVID never happened, but after going through everything that led me to where I am now, I wouldn’t change a thing.  

What did you learn about yourself through these experiences and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?

A photo of me and other guys from the trip in front of the many “Love Locks” at Namsan Tower

Aside from learning that I need to travel more, I also learned what a strong sense of comradery feels like. When I met my roommates and the other guys on the trip, it was like a switch went off and suddenly I knew what it felt like to have people who are different from you, who come from completely different backgrounds and have been influenced by different parts of the world, feel like brothers. It’s crazy how quickly our relationships grew in the small amount of time that we were around each other – I think a majority of it has to do with the fact that we were bonded by the shared experience of studying abroad in a country that we had never been to, but to me it also has a lot to do with dumb luck.  

Spending time in South Korea also made me realize how big the world is. I’m from a small town in Florida and for me, it was easy to get caught in a “bubble” that is my life. Having the opportunity to get a taste for what life is like in South Korea made me see how different and similar people can be despite coming from different walks of life. I knew this going in, but it was also amazing to see how different Korean people function compared to Americans.  

What is one of your favorite memories or stories from your time abroad?

My favorite memory of the whole trip would have to be the day that we all got released from quarantine, and it wasn’t because we were finally free of confinement. It was the day that we all got to meet each other face-to-face, and it was also the day before South Korea was about to enact “Level 4” COVID-19 restrictions. Without getting into it too much, “Level 4” meant that bars and restaurants closed by 10pm, we weren’t allowed to be out and about in groups of more than 4, and by 6pm we couldn’t be in groups of more than 2.  

So knowing that, we took the opportunity to have the first thing that we do be something that we could all do together. And so, we took a train to Itaewon to get together at a pub. We ordered drinks, food (maybe too much food), and just got to know each other and had a good time. We were having such a good time and talking like we had known each other for a long time despite only meeting one another 5 hours prior. Overall, it was a great night and I remember it fondly, as it set the tone for what was in store for the rest of the trip. 

A nighttime shot of various paper lanterns suspended above Itaewon

What’s been one of the best lessons you’ve learned while traveling abroad?

I would say that I learned to be more open. You never know what may come from the opportunities that you’re presented with. I know that it’s easier said than done, but you shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. Studying abroad was presented as a risk because I was coming from a place of comfort with where I lived and my daily routine. In addition to that, I had never traveled by myself or had been on my own before, but there was one night when I decided to fly solo and wander the city by myself and take it all in. I did a ton of reflecting and I remember feeling grateful to be where I was. I was doing something for myself that was the definition of living life. It was all because I was open to the opportunity of studying abroad.

What is one thing that every student studying abroad in Seoul should do?

  • N Seoul Tower 
  • Gyeongbokgung Palace 
  • Lotte World Tower Observatory  
  • Any local café or bakery 
  • Insadong Market (gifts and souvenirs) 
  • Gwangjang Market (local street food) 
  • Myeong-dong Shopping District 
  • Hongdae Shopping District 
  • Dongdaemun Design Plaza 
  • Bukchon Hanok Village 
  • Namdaemun Underground Market 
  • Jongakk Station 

Any advice for students interested in going abroad to South Korea?

I would say that there are 2 things that you should prepare yourself for. The first one is all the COVID-19 related things that are layered in the pre-departure process, the arrival process, and potentially your time in the country. For me, the precautions added stress because of things like testing and the gathering of the necessary documentation. Just be ready for what comes with traveling abroad given the state of the world right now. 

The other thing I think you should prepare yourself for is to have the time of your life. Traveling abroad, especially if it’s your first time, can be exciting, but also scary. I was nervous and I think you shouldn’t be afraid to admit that you are. But you should know that you’re not alone. There’s a whole group of students who are going through the same things as you, so bond with them over that. Make friendships that you probably wouldn’t have made if you hadn’t studied abroad and when you finally touch down in the country you’re visiting, make sure you stop and take it all in during the midst of the chaos, and just enjoy it. 

Decked out in traditional Korean Hanbok in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace

Inspired by Christian’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 adventure today!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

Leave a Reply