On Going Back to School in Seoul

by Regina Walton, 10/08/2007

After I’d been here for a few years and was just sick of my job, I decided to go back to school full-time.

I found out that the major universities in Seoul: Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University, Ewha Womans University and others had international studies masters programs which were taught exclusively in English. This was a good fit for me because I earned my Juris Doctor (law degree) in the States and had considered a couple of dual J.D./Master’s program which combined the two studies.

I saw this as a great chance to do that degree I’d always wanted and to learn more about the history of the region. However, the most valuable thing I learned was what it’s like to be a student in Korea. Honestly, since I’d already been here for a few years as a university instructor, I thought I was well adjusted to the culture. I realized quickly after quite a few conflicts that I had a lot still to learn.

First, even if a program is taught in English, it’s probably still administered in Korean. I know of one university with an international studies program that has a functionally bilingual staff and documents in both English and Korean. In the rest, it’s really about learning how to ask questions and rely on the help of your Korean-speaking staff and classmates to help you out in a pinch.

It’s hard to spell out exactly, but frequently, Koreans find it difficult to anticipate the problems a foreign student will face.

For example, whereas in the States books and syllabi are available before class starts and you just might have some reading or an assignment for the first day. In Korea, you’re probably going to get the syllabus the first day the course starts and the books haven’t been ordered or are simply not available. This means that books are frequently copied illegally and sold at local copy shops. Get used to it, it’s rampant at Korean universities because it seems that publishers make it difficult to order texts quickly coupled with the tendency of Koreans to wait until the last minute. What that means is instead of the university book store, which is usually easy to find, you’re going to have to find your way to the local copy shop that your department uses. Also, Koreans aren’t very good at giving clear directions, so just ask your professor where the shop is (he or she might not know either as TAs will do the busy work). However, what will happen is a classmate will probably volunteer to lead you. If you don’t speak up, most likely, no one will figure out that you don’t know where it is.

Second, in terms of orientations, I can’t speak for all of the universities, but we had a meeting where they talked about the various specialties in the program and went over a bit of the program, but we didn’t have that orientation of the school and typical facilities you’d use. Again, I think this is because Koreans assume since they can get around that you can too. If you’d like a tour ask your department if there is something like that available. I got one but it was only after I took Korean at the school’s language institute and it was one semester after I’d started, so it was a bit of a waste. However, I still learned more about the university’s layout.

Third, and maybe most important is the culture’s focus on hierarchy. I came in the program with expectations to be treated as I’d been as a university instructor. That was easy for me because I had never been treated in any other way and I’d become accustomed to it. Also, in both university and law school, I dealt with my professors in a respectful but open and friendly way. It was never a problem going to a professor’s office and talking to them. It was never a problem asking for clarification in class. In Korea, it’s very different. Students don’t engage their professors and class participation is so rare that it has to be factored in the grading system to encourage students to participate. I say, as a foreigner, use your comfort level with communicating in class because those will just be “gimmie” points. Your competition, Korean students who have to struggle with getting comfortable with speaking, will have to adjust (Also, you’ll earn brownie points if you try to help them, but a lot does depend on them.) However, that remains in class.

Outside of class, you are the student and you’re at the bottom of the ladder and you have to act accordingly. That’s a hard thing to learn when you’re used to being treated a certain way. I think if you’re here on business or here in a position that gets a certain level of respect, the transition can be difficult. I advise you to keep records of your interactions with staff, professors and deans. When and if there is a conflict, you’ll be able to document the steps you took. Also, don’t entrust those documents to anyone else without keeping copies or they simply might disappear (believe me, I know this first hand.) Also, keep a lid on your temper. You'll probably find that staff are uncomfortable with making decisions and are particularly uncomfortable with passing on bad news.

Finally, I would say the most important thing is to be patient. Because I’m sure that every foreign student’s mileage may vary. I learned to go back to the basics. What I do know is that your experience will differ based on your personality, your length of time here and your ability to adapt.


Note: Please feel free to make comments on the above article on the Forum.

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