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Focus International Voices

From Seoul to Philadelphia: Different Country, Different Campus Life

Illustration Credit: Margot Whipps

11,097 km, 13-hour time difference, and 14-hour flight. I had to challenge these numbers to get a new name tag in my life: an international transfer student. 

In the summer of 2018, I graduated from Kookmin University in South Korea and decided to transfer to Temple University in the spring of 2019. Going to a graduate school is usually the next step, but I decided to apply to undergraduate school because I had no confidence in English at the time and wanted to experience American college life a little bit more.

Born and raised in Korea, I knew nothing about American campus life, except what I learned from ‘Gossip Girl,’ a series about privileged upper-class high schoolers from Manhattan. 

Now, as I’m getting used to American school life, it’s interesting to compare Asian and American campus life. 

The first thing I noticed was that while there were many major-based group events in Korea, American students were not socializing as much. I’m not saying that American students don’t hang out with their friends — meeting friends, eating, and studying together is the same in both countries. But since college students in the U.S. have to work on tasks continually throughout the semester, they have less time to spend with friends. On the other hand, in Korea, assignments and exams are saturated in the middle, and at the end of the semester, creating two very busy times with more to do at once.

In Korea, there are countless group events for each department, such as Membership Training (M.T.), festivals, and an academic seminar. The department-based events are going on the entire year, which helps Korean students get to know everyone within their major. M.T. means going on a trip for three days to strengthen friendship among department members and the club. We book a huge room near the beach or valley to play games, eat Korean barbecue and discuss each group’s plans in meetings. 

Once a year, there is a big festival on campus run by students. Each department makes restaurant-like booths, and sells liquor and food. Members of the student government set concepts, arrange group costumes, discuss menus, and cook dishes. Famous singers, like K-pop groups, are invited to the event, making college more fun.

When I first arrived to Temple’s Main Campus, I was shocked by the number of food trucks on campus. Kookmin University also had several food trucks, but only for festivals and special events — not every day. It depends on the college, but most department buildings at Kookmin University have their own cafeterias. I used to either buy my lunch in the cafeteria or order take-out delivery. My friends and I would order chicken for lunch and drink beer as if it were a soft drink. In Korea, we share the same drinking age restriction which is 18, and we have more free time on campus to hang out with friends. It is almost impossible for current students to drink alcohol on campus because of school regulations, but a few years ago, when I was a student there, drinking was mostly accepted as long as we did not get drunk and disrupt the school atmosphere. 

Members of the Student Government in Kookmin University.

The most surprising thing for me was how actively students at American universities participate in classes though. I studied advertising in Korea and now study it at Temple as well, so the class content itself has only changed to English, and it has not been difficult to adapt. But the atmosphere in the classroom is much more active and free when it comes to interacting. In Korea, there is an absolute silence in the classroom — all the students listen while the professor is speaking. School policies are more strict in terms of using devices, wearing baseball caps, and speaking out loud — our culture is very respectful toward older people by Confucianism. Some Korean students are also just embarrassed to express a different opinion in case it is wrong, so they rather don’t say anything. 

But here in the U.S., students interact with professors so much more and are encouraged to share their opinions. When my professor asks for our opinions about advertising, all students participate, raising their hands to evaluate and analyze it. I was so angry with myself at first for saying nothing while other students were expressing their opinions. It took time, but I practiced raising my hand to beat this timidity. I learned to proudly convey my words in front of students from various countries. There were many times when my answers were wrong, however, no one cared and I felt free to express myself in class for the first time in my life. 

Looking back, nearly a year after coming to the United States, I realize it took time to get used to Temple life at first. I was depressed because it was harder to make friends than I thought, and I cried because I missed my family in Korea. But the important thing is that I have gotten over it. Now, I have written my first column for Freely magazine, volunteer at film festivals, and plan Korean Coffee Hour event on campus. 

I will not forget how I felt when I first came to Temple, and to never feel like that again, I will continue to challenge myself.