Senior Serena Yun turns to Korean food to cure homesickness.
“Our standard meal is rice with side dishes like kimchee […] but here it is so hard to get kimchee,” she said.
Yun is one of nine women who arrived on campus six months ago from Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea.
Along with three Afghan exchange students, these 12 women make up this year’s Korean-Afghan Roommate Community (KARC) housed in Ball Hall.
UMW Residence Life’s website describes KARC as a community promoting understanding between cultures.
The women are paired with an American roommate, giving both students the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures.
According to KARC Chairwoman and senior Beth Haver, the community began in 2005 and the current group is the fourth generation of foreign exchange students involved in KARC at UMW.
The Korean women stay at UMW for a year, but the Afghan women, who are involved with the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, stay on campus for a full four years.
While this year’s numbers are slightly lower than in the past, Haver said there is an average of 19 foreign-exchange students involved with KARC each year.
The community is close-knit, offering occasional outings to restaurants and movie theaters. The group recently toured D.C., and visited the zoo and the White House.
“It was an adventure to get us all together,” said Haver.
Senior Gina Kim from Seoul, South Korea said she chose to come to UMW after her economics professor in Korea recommended the program to her.
Kim recounted the intensive application process, consisting of two interviews, an essay, and a TOEFL score of 88 out of a possible 120. Though it was a lot of effort, Kim said it was worth it.
Kim explained that Korean companies are actively seeking applicants who have a global perspective and diverse experiences, which is why exchange programs are so popular among South Korean university students.
“Most of my friends [in Korea] want to study abroad like me,” she said.
Senior Serena Yun, also from Seoul, found UMW appealing due to its location.
“UMW is pretty close to Washington D.C. and New York City,” Yun said. “It makes the eastern side of America easily accessible.”
Yun also cited UMW’s small size as a major draw, as she envisioned it being a favorable environment to develop close relationships, in addition to receiving sufficient feedback and attention from professors.
But when Yun arrived here, she admitted to having to adjust to certain aspects of a lifestyle quite different from what she was used to.
“In Korea we don’t usually raise our hand and participate in class,” said Yun, explaining that lecture-style classes tend to dominate in South Korea.
The language barrier also proved to be stressful at times.
“I was sad when I couldn’t find the word of something to [tell] my roommate that I really wanted to say,” Yun explained.
She recounted times where she struggled to order food in English and times when she cried because she missed her family so badly.
“Whenever any of the girls went through this, however, they comforted each other,” said Yun. “We talked to each other and made each other feel better.”
Haver said this feeling of homesickness has been common amongst the girls, but they have found solutions.
When the girls had trouble during the first weeks of school because the professors were talking so fast, Haver was able to lend a hand.
Kim agreed that keeping up with lectures in a second language was tough, but worked through it by frequently visiting the speaking and writing centers.
“The first semester was not easy,” Kim said. “But [this semester] is much better.”
Senior Jamie Lee, also from Seoul, agreed that while taking courses in English is a challenge, she feels her English is improving with time.
“It has become easier to understand lectures and read textbooks,” said Lee.
She added that living on a campus so far away from her parents makes her feel independent.
According to Haver, members of KARC stay involved on campus and several group members have gone to Honduras in association with Students Helping Honduras (SHH) for the past three years.
“[It was] one of the most valuable memories of my life,” said Lee, who traveled with SHH last winter break and was moved by her time there.
In addition to this, the girls have formed a “Korean Club” on campus, in which they teach Korean to whomever is willing to learn.
They also participate in events in which they share aspects of their culture with UMW. On Feb. 4, the women invited the community to celebrate the Lunar New Year with them.
Haver joined the KARC program last year, unsure of what to expect, but has found the experience incredibly rewarding.
“My roommate [from KARC] became my best friend,” Haver said.
Junior Annie Truslow will be one of the 2011-2012 KARC Chairwomen. She said that the knowledge and happiness gained from assisting others is what makes KARC such a valuable program on campus.
“In many ways it’s a humbling experience [to be involved with an exchange program]. All your time at university is not just about you anymore, and it’s a beautiful feeling,” Truslow said.