My Year Abroad – Maaria’s story


Study Abroad in Seoul, South Korea

It was the week before my second year of university and I was scrolling through the pages for the BSc Psychology when I saw a link called “Study Abroad”. Curious, I clicked on it with no idea the impact that little action would have on my life. One year later, I was disembarking a plane at South Korea’s Incheon airport with three suitcases and the biggest smile on my face.

My journey from the airport to my dorms was a bit of a blur because I was so drained from such a long journey, but I distinctly remember being slapped in the face with humidity and heat as I stepped out of the airport, and then so much blue water with mountains in the distance as I left the airport. An hour later, I was standing by the East Gate of Yonsei University’s Sinchon campus staring at International House (I-House) – the student accommodation that would be my home for the next 10 months.

The next day, my roommate and I walked to Daiso to buy a few things for our rooms. Walking around Sinchon that day was surreal; it still didn’t feel real that I was in Korea by myself. I think my situation finally hit me a few days later when I went to the bank to open an account for myself and then the immigration office to apply for an ARC card (a foreigner ID card). Doing this and navigating Seoul by myself was a little daunting, but after I did it I was so unbelievably proud of myself – and I hadn’t even been in Korea for more than a week!

Wandering the streets of Sinchon for the first time

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I will say it again: living, learning and making important decisions abroad forces you to develop your independence, personal judgement, problem-solving and organisational skills and self-confidence. Now, nothing I face here in London seems that scary when I have done a lot of the same things, or even more stressful things, by myself in another country.

While most Koreans can speak and understand English to varying degrees, their first instinct is to speak in Korean. My biggest advice for you is, if you cannot speak Korean or can only speak a very little, do not attempt to use it in important situations! If you say even one word in Korean, they will take that to mean you can speak/understand Korean to some degree and then spit rapid-fire Korean at you that you have no hope of keeping up with. To make matters worse, they are very bad at recognising your “I have no idea what you are saying face”. This made for many funny situations, but also a few stressful ones. I am not saying don’t speak in Korean, I am saying you might want to consider using English in important situations so that you don’t end up missing key information.

I took Korean language classes as soon as I got to Yonsei, so my speaking and understanding improved quickly, and soon interacting with Koreans was no longer as anxiety-inducing. Instead, it was an opportunity for me to practice what I had learnt and to talk to ahjummas (older ladies) and ahjussis (older men) who were always curious to know where I was from. Whether you decide to take a language class or not (although I highly recommend that you do), I think it is very important to make an attempt at communicating in Korean – even if it’s just ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘goodbye’. Learning a foreign language is one of the best souvenirs you can give yourself! It will also endear you to Koreans and make your experience abroad richer and more meaningful.

This brings me onto classes at Yonsei University. Selecting modules at Yonsei can be a little complicated, but if you do research beforehand and set an alarm for the day that course selection opens, you’ll be okay. Exchange students can either select:

  • ‘Study Abroad’ courses – these are available exclusively for exchange students and have more places, so it will be less competitive. There are usually no prerequisites for these courses.
  • Major-specific courses – these have limited spots available for exchange students and aren’t necessarily taught in English. It is very unlikely that you will be able to take a major-specific course outside of your major (degree subject).

I found that, in both semesters, there were only three Psychology modules taught in English. I only managed to get a spot on one major-specific Psychology course all year, so for my remaining modules I chose a variety of study abroad courses. This meant that I got to study different subjects and gain some insight into other disciplines. For example, my choices included an economics class, a cinema class and a politics class. For the one Psychology course I took, I found the workload to be lighter than at KCL because there was less reading, and homework assignments were less challenging.

Underwood International College, Yonsei University

At Yonsei, you will have midterms, which we don’t have here, and attendance is not only compulsory, but it contributes to your overall module grade. A lot of the exams consisted purely of multiple-choice questions, and essays did not seem to have set marking criteria; so all together I didn’t find classes particularly challenging. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed studying on campus, and the less-demanding workload meant I got to spend more time exploring South Korea and having fun!

Inside and outside of classes I met people from all over the world and made some of the best memories with them. I now have friends in many different countries, some of whom have come to visit me in London and some of whom I will go to visit in the summer. My advice is to live in student accommodation on campus because it is easier to interact with other students, know what social events are going on, and make impromptu plans. For example, I started talking to a girl in the dorm kitchen one day and a month later we went to Hong Kong for a week together.

Another advantage to studying abroad is that you get to discover new and exciting foods – this for me was one of the best parts of studying in Seoul! I absolutely love Korean food and only wish we had more authentic Korean food in London. Korean food is light but still filling and feels healthier somehow – so even if you eat out every single day, it doesn’t feel like it. It is also much cheaper than eating out in London. But, I should make a few disclaimers:

  • If you can’t eat spicy food, be aware that a lot of Korean food is spicy. There are, however, non-spicy options and you can always ask that the food be made less spicy.
  • If you are Muslim, Seoul has quite a few halal options, but you may have to go out of your way and it will be more expensive.
  • If you are vegetarian or vegan, please be aware that meat is a very big part of Korean cuisine and culture, so you may experience some difficulty finding food – but it’s not impossible.

Bibimbap, a very common rice dish in South Korea

Seoul also boasts some of the yummiest desserts served in some of prettiest and quirkiest cafes in the world – from animal cafés (where you can find cats, dogs, sheep, meerkats and a whole host of other furry creatures) to flower cafés, and all the way to fishing cafés. I could go on, but I’ll let you discover the wonderful world of Korean cafés for yourself!

I petted some wallabies at a meerkat café (I’m just as confused as you are) in Hongdae!

What I’ve told you so far barely scratches the surface of all I experienced and learned during my year abroad. South Korea is such a vibrant country filled with so many wonders and oddities that it would take a lot longer than a year to discover them all. From the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang to the cherry blossoms in spring to the fireworks festival over Han river, I am truly grateful to KCL for offering me the opportunity to explore another part of the world I might never have seen otherwise. I got to learn another language, make lifelong friends, discover new interests and foods and, above all, discover what I am capable of and what is important to me.

Cherry blossoms on campus

If you’re still not convinced that you should study abroad, or you need help convincing your parents, studying abroad will look great on your CV! We now live in a globalised, well-connected world; international experience can only give you a competitive edge over your peers in the eyes of employers and graduate schools. In addition to the skills you will have gained from your experience abroad, such as communication and problem-solving skills, you will have the maturity, confidence and stories to back it up.

I never thought in a million years I would make a life for myself in South Korea – even if it was only for 10 months. It just goes to show, you never know what the future holds. The world is a massive place full of endless possibilities and opportunities; you just have to reach out and grab them. Just remember: do your research beforehand, keep an open mind and be brave! 

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