Despite Change, Exchange Grows: Korean Students Study Books and Culture
BY ERIN HOESLY
Jieun Lee, who was a German major back at her home in Korea, said her priority in studying at Mary Washington was overcoming the language barrier.
“I want to learn English and improve my English first. That’s why I didn’t pick a specific major like Psychology or Business,” Lee said.
Sixteen international students from Sungshin Women’s University in Korea joined the new freshmen and transfer students at UMW this fall. The Korean Exchange Program strives to educate and benefit the students through an exchange with UMW, though many of the girls find the cultural differences to be the biggest challenge.
Last year was the first trial year of the exchange with UMW, resulting from former President William Frawley’s connections with Sungshin University. A second group of students arrived two weeks before classes started. A major concern for several people involved in the program was using the English language.
Visiting student Lee admitted that overcoming the language barrier was one of the biggest stresses in preparing to come to UMW.
“I thought understanding the professor or what the other students were saying would be really difficult,” Lee said.
Esther Yook, Speaking Center director and coordinator of the Korean Exchange Program, had similar concerns for the students. Yook altered the orientation program from last year to both help the international students adjust, as well as prepare faculty for the students’ presence in the classroom.
After the orientation, the students from Sungshin began taking classes right along with the other UMW students.
“While the classes at UMW are challenging, I also tell [the students] that they’re not here to get a PhD in English literature. You’re here to learn about American culture, as much as it is to do the academic portion,” Yook said on advising her students.
Lee admits that her classes are intimidating. Unlike her school in Korea, at Mary Washington students and professors treat each other more like peers and friends.
While students at UMW might speak out and debate a professor or express their own opinion, that would not be acceptable in Korea.
Yook explained that Korean culture is a hierarchical social structure, in which all people are aware of and accept the differences in social status.
In Korea, a person of lower status would speak with honor and respect to identify someone of higher social position. Yook foresaw concerns like Lee’s, and worried that the students would be unwilling to talk to the professors.
Lee said she finds speaking up in class enjoyable, and likes how it challenges her. She feels that professors have gone above and beyond in helping the students feel welcome.
“Dr. Yook makes us feel really comfortable and makes sure we’re okay. It’s like living with my family,” said Lee of her orientation week.
“Even though we had to study for six hours a day, it was so fun,” she said, “They were professors but they seemed like friends, advisors and motivators. They also seem like family.”
Lee admitted that she has to take initiative most of the time. While a few other students befriended her, she had to approach the majority of the student body.
Jieun Lee admits that her horizons, both academically and socially have been expanded. She admits to being very satisfied with living at Mary Washington.