An “Enjoyable Discomfort” Journey: My Student Exchange Program Experience in South Korea

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Performing in Asia Culture Festival.

South Korea might be one of your planned destinations for doing a graduate study abroad. Before making your decision, it might be worth it to do an exchange program to South Korea should you have the opportunity. In this article, Aqila shares her experiences of doing an exchange program at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS).  

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“I believe there is so much I can learn out there beyond my comfort, and if I get the chance, I promise I will go out and grab every opportunity that can help me make the most out of my semester in South Korea”, at least that was how I ended my cover letter when I applied for a scholarship for my autumn program.

I used to live comfortably in the boundaries that I thought were the safest until the last two years. In the beginning of 2018, I took an impulsive step to register for a five months student exchange program.  It is a regular program held by my university, University of Indonesia (UI).  UI has student exchange programs with universities in Europe, Asia, and Australia.  To this end, there will usually be 3 to 4 universities selection tests every month, and they will only accept 2 to 5 students per university out of 20 to 30 registrants. The universities will assess the students through written essay, English interview, and TOEFL score.

Actually, this is a self-funded program, but certain countries offer a full scholarship.   For example, the country that I chose offered a scholarship called Global Korea Scholarship.  It covered my flight tickets fees, monthly allowance, health insurance, and settlement aid.

This decision was quite risky because by the time I registered, I was already in my 6th semester.  My other friends chose to start planning their thesis rather than studying abroad.  People say, the exchange program is for freshmen or sophomores as they have more free time.  It is also a waste of money if you are not bright enough to get the scholarship.

And there I was, living my life as a student in a popular yet foreign country, South Korea.  I was officially a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS). I seriously had to start thinking of how to not waste my time and scholarship money for the next five months.

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies where I did my exchange program.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies where I did my exchange program.
My Korean Language course classmates.
My Korean Language course classmates.

The thought of living alone far away from my family had never crossed my mind at that time.  Usually, my mother is on the lead for everything who manages our spending, decides what to eat and commands us to do the housing chores. But this time, I had to manage everything by myself.

Turned out, it wasn’t as easy as I expected. I even found making groceries’ shopping plans for the rest of the month exhausting.  But at the same time, as I was adapting to the new culture and educational system, I successfully survived with my scholarship allowance—I received 500,000 KRW monthly—that I managed for accommodation, daily expenses as well as shopping and traveling.

For some of my friends who have experienced this exchange program, having a lot of time to travel during your study is the best advantage you can get as an exchange student.  Of course, unlike the daily rush we experience in our home university, exchange students are only eligible to take maximum of 15 credits.  Exchange students usually push their schedule to only 3-4 days a week (Monday to Wednesday/Thursday), so they can spend the rest of the week on traveling to other cities.  That was what I did as well.  Pro tips, never let your college schedule intrudes your traveling plan!

Cocktail party on KRI Bima Suci when it berthed in Yeosu.
Cocktail party on KRI Bima Suci when it berthed in Yeosu.

During my five months there, I managed to travel to Yeosu, Jeju Island, and Busan.  Not to mention other suburban cities two hours away from Seoul, like Incheon and Paju.  I didn’t have that much money and I didn’t have my mom to plan the itinerary. This time, I decided where to go, when to leave, and it brought me to meet a lot of kind-hearted and inspiring people unexpectedly.
I got the opportunity to sleepover in KRI Bima Suci, Indonesia Navy Tall Ship, when it berthed in Yeosu and make friends with cadets there. When I visited Jeju, I met a very nice Korean solo traveler who treated me to lunch and took me to interesting places. In Busan, a low-profile and smart Indonesian PhD student guided me strolling around the city, so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost. On-budget traveling in a foreign country gave me a new perspective and first-hand experience regarding the country’s culture.

Hiking to Bukhan Mountain with my classmates.
Hiking to Bukhan Mountain with my classmates.

Beyond traveling, my exchange program experience was insightful because I tried to break my limits by joining an Indonesia Traditional Dance Club in Seoul and to take a public speaking course at my university. As an introvert, performing in front of a large audiences is scarier than a 764 feet bungy jump. But to step out of my comfort zone was what my exchange program was all about. Therefore, I always made steps based on this sacred vision of mine.

Performing in ASEAN Culinary Festival.
Performing in ASEAN Culinary Festival.

As I did not have any skill nor experience in dancing, the only things I had to offer when I joined the club were courage and persistence to learn.  But, during my time there, the club allowed me to perform and represent Indonesia in three international events.  It made me truly happy and proud at the same time because it was such a precious opportunity to embrace my home country’s culture in international scale.  I do not think I would get such opportunity if I did not go abroad for studying.

Public speaking had always been a big problem for me.  I used to be very shy and would just let my friends take over the stage most of the time when I had a group presentation. Things are not the same anymore after I took the public speaking class at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. I had to deliver one English speech biweekly.  Once I knew the right technique, I managed to make myself comfortable sharing my ideas in front of the audiences.  I still have a lot of things to improve, but, at least, I do not avoid it anymore. Now, I take every chance of public speaking bravely, if there is any.

If I were asked to describe my five months exchange program in two words, it would be “enjoyable discomfort”. Making a snap decision that’s unusual for your routine might cost you quite much.  I had to delay my graduation and took all the classes left with my juniors. But still, it was worth it. I came home gaining more confidence and said “yes” over a challenge more often.  It is totally fine to have a comfort zone.  However, you have to be aware that it sometimes can keep you from seizing life experience.

 

My exchange program experience was not always full of happiness. There were times when I missed home so badly, also when I felt I wanted to give up and I could not handle all the things myself.  But, that was also the time when I learned to overcome new challenges and started to appreciate my comfort zone!

Studying abroad might be scary for some people.  People tend to ask too much whether they will survive to live in a new environment.  But it is one of my ways to explore the unfamiliar, so I can be comfortable making myself uncomfortable and later, achieve more personal and professional growth.

If you are looking for a short sweet escape from campus routines so you can explore your potential more, I highly recommend you to actively seek for information from your campus international office for student exchange program opportunities.  I also found it helpful to ask my friends or seniors who have experienced the similar programs.  It helped me throughout the selection process and departure preparation.

All photos are provided by the author.

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Aqila is an undergraduate student of communication at the University of Indonesia. She is passionate about marketing and branding. To explore more about her passion, she is currently building her portfolio by doing internships in several companies related to this field. Other than seeking for professional experience, she is also actively looking for international exposure. In 2018, she received the Global Korea Scholarship, a scholarship for an exchange student in Korea. In 2019, she represented Jakarta and Indonesia in the Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP), Japan-ASEAN youth exchange program holds by the Cabinet Office of Japan. She loves writing and photography, and you can find her sharing her pieces of work in her LinkedIn and Instagram account.