Land of the Morning Calm: Wonju, Korea

I’ve finally made it to my destination: Yonsei University’s Global Village in Wonju. It’s been one full week since arriving here and of course there’s been a whirlwind of activity going on during this time.

We, the exchange students, were greeted by the Global Village staff at the airport the day we arrived and soon as soon as our group of 20 students had gathered, we were whisked off to Wonju. Week one’s rundown of activities: orientation, introductions, room assignments, field trip, first day of classes.

There are about 5 schools represented from across the US, some of them being the University of Wisconsin-Superior, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, and Miami University, Ohio. There are two of us from SDSU, myself and Gabriela Meza. There was also a group of female students from Kazakhstan present at the airport, but they were regular exchange students and not participating in the Global Village.

While conversing with some from our group, I was curious to find out why they had chosen Korea as their country of study. The most common answer I received was because Yonsei’s exchange program did not require them to speak the language of Korean to take classes and participate academically. Therefore, they could immediately pick up from where they left off at their home school in terms of their academic schedules.

There are approximately 30 courses taught in English here at Yonsei’s Wonju campus. It is not only the Global Village participants that take these classes. They are students from all around the globe. Classes such Russian Literature, Critique of Korean Films, Modern Korean history, and etc. are offered each semester and they are all taught in English. You can therefore take these classes to fulfill major and graduation requirements back at your home institution. But along with these elective courses, Global Village participants are required to take Korean language and Korean Cultural Experience classes. You may take up to 18 units per semester (that’s 6 classes). A lot of Yonsei students do, but they end up dropping a course or two later on in the semester, which is a regular occurrence, apparently.

The other informal, non-academic requirements for Global Villagers are mutual mentor sessions (mms) with seven individuals, seven hours a week and 2 team meetings totaling 3 hours a week, which we are paid a stipend for. It pays up to $3,000 per semester, which helps offset the cost of food, laundry and other expenses. For a student considering going abroad for a semester, Yonsei’s Global Village makes sense financially. Also, boarding costs are waived.

The purpose of the mms is cultural exchange on an individual basis. Team meetings culminate into two presentations focused on the similarities and differences of each other’s nations.

The native students here at Yonsei are polite, kind and accommodating people. My roommates are considerate and helpful. I am witnessing firsthand the well-recognized hospitality of Koreans and it is making my transition into this school seamless and comfortable.

We in America are also quite accommodating towards foreigners, but the curiosity of the Korean students participating in the Global Village has come as a bit of a surprise. They constantly want to know more especially about our language and slang words. I think it’s their yearning to want to fit in to our society once it’s time for their visit to the US. But they are just as generous to share their insights about their own country. A couple of them became my trusted tour guides on our first group trip to Gyeongju. Again, their honesty, kindness and sincerity is noteworthy to mention. I am feeling safe and secure in this new home that I find myself in.

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The Global Village staff arranged a field trip to Pohang and Gyeongju last week and it was a fascinating time. In Pohang lies Posco, a steel manufacturing plant that was named the 146th world’s largest corporation by the Fortune global 500. We were able to tour their facilities and were shown a 20-minute presentation. Posco was one of the main contributors to the rapid industrialization of Korea in the 70’s aka the “Miracle on the Han River” mentioned in my previous post.

The second area of interest that we visited was Gyeongju city which is designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. We visited the burial grounds of Silla royalty, the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, the pyramids of Korea; the royal palace, Donggung; Sokguram Grotto; Bulguksa temple and Gyeongju National Museum.

The most memorable of all these sites was Bulguksa temple where we walked through the gate known as Buddha Heaven’s Gate and climbed the flight of stairs Anyangmun (Pure Land Gate). It is said that only those who have reached enlightenment can take these steps and I did so. How thrilling! I sat in on a Buddhist monk’s sermon and wandered the grounds of the temple with Yonsei student tour guides at hand.

From one of these students I learned the reason why Korea is considered the “Hermit Kingdom”. In historical times, the kingdom of Korea was invaded numerously by the likes of the Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, and even Western powers. The ruling administration decided it was in the best interest of the country to purge themselves of foreign influence, thus they shut the country off from any kind of trade and exchange with the outside. Koreans were the last East Asian country to allow access to foreigners. But this proved detrimental as Japan, which had opened its ports and country much earlier, was able to build up militarily and conquer Korea by colonization and indoctrination of Japanese culture and politics.

As my Korean Modern History professor explained in her first lecture, we need to learn our history, so that we can learn from our past mistakes and understand who we are and develop our identity. The other purpose of knowing our history, she says, is so that the ruling government can legitimize their domestic and international agendas.

Well, that’s it from the “land of the morning calm.” Until next time, be well. And if you have any questions you’d like answered, please post them in the comment section below. TTFN, tah tah for now!

PS: I’m excited to hear that the Aztecs men’s basketball team is keeping the hope of making the final four alive by winning the Mountain West title. Go Aztecs!

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