Excerpts from an interview with alumna Bilqees, NSLI-Y South Korea, Summer 2015

Bilqees sought out opportunities to study Korean even before she knew about NSLI-Y. Early in high school, she started learning it online “on a whim” and later enrolled in weekly classes at a Chicago-area Korean-American Community Center. Bilqees learned about NSLI-Y in her high school Arabic class and was ecstatic to learn of the Korean language option.

It is this curiosity and openness to new experiences that seems to have helped Bilqees develop her language skills as a NSLI-Y participant, abroad for the first time. When asked about her favorite memory from NSLI-Y, Bilqees hesitated, “Oh, wow. Every day was a new experience. Narrowing it down to just one is difficult.”

Her host parents were an older couple with whom she developed an extremely strong relationship. Despite feeling lonely and awkward on the first day with her host family, “The host family had a significant impact on my time there. I spent a good amount of time with them… everyday interactions. Not only did it improve my language skills, as we only spoke Korean, but as they were an older couple, I addressed them as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’ and they treated me like a real family member. It was a very comfortable [environment] and safe haven. We also had great teachers. It was a really comfortable learning environment.”

image of bilqees in a supermarket eating icecream with her host family

As Bilqees’ understanding of Korean deepened, so did her host family relationship, “The conversations [progressed from] the basic greetings and became, ‘‘How was your day?’…‘How are you feeling?’… ‘What did you learn today?’...‘What did you think about this or that?’ I was able to overcome the superficial relationships and get deeper into a real human connection.” She recalled one day towards the end of program, “My host father came home and asked, “Do you want to go out for a drive? I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ That day, we went on a six-hour drive around Seoul. He took me to museums… outdoor parks… a different side I didn’t get to experience in the really populated areas of Seoul… the nature, the culture. I was extremely thankful for that. It’s one of the best memories I have from Korea.”

Right: “This picture includes my host mother (whom I called halmeoni/할머니, grandmother) and my host sister (whom I called unnie/언니,older sister) grocery shopping and eating ice-cream together."

Though she had a preconceived notion that Koreans would be less open to foreigners and African Americans, she found herself approached just as much as the other students. Some of the questions from strangers were misinformed. “A lot of time Korean people would approach and ask, “Are you from Africa? You couldn’t be from America…. Because I look different; I’m not the stereotypical image of an American.” There aren’t many young African Americans in Korea and especially women, so […]me being there showed I had an interest in the culture and I was there to learn about them and also for them to learn about me, who I was, where I came from. It was a learning experience for me, but also [for] the people I interacted with […] It opened a lot of people’s eyes.”

For applicants, Bilqees recommends, “Learn the language beyond the [NSLI-Y] program! Don’t wait to see if you’re a finalist. There’s an opportunity to learn a lot before the pre-departure orientation.” Bilqees is spreading that curiosity and enthusiasm for language learning as part of her daily life. “There was a song I really liked while I was in Korea. When I got back home, I kept listening to it; I played it really often.” She introduced her cousin, who was not familiar with Korea, to the song. When she saw him weeks later, he was singing the same song. “It was really weird; he picked up some of the words and took an interest in it. He was telling me how he was thinking of learning the language…I was so full of pride!”

image of bilqees and nsli-y friends in hanbok

Left: "This picture includes a few of the many NSLI-Yians who I became very close to. We were wearing the Korean traditional clothing called hanbok/한복 at the National Museum of Korea."

She also recommends, “Step outside your comfort zone. Learn about other things. Take an interest in other people.” Bilqees lives and breathes this guidance. Now a freshman at University of Illinois- Chicago, Bilqees does not have access to in-person Korean classes, but is continuing self-study and considering study abroad during her sophomore year. She has begun studying Chinese and is still in touch with her Korean host family and teachers. She volunteers to welcome international students to campus and takes the opportunity to practice Chinese and Korean with them. When asked about further academic or professional plans, she says, “There are a lot of opportunities … all I know is I want to continue Chinese and Korean and put in the time and effort to better [my proficiency] in any way possible.”

Originally published on October 13th, 2015.

2017 Update

Bilqees began her freshman year at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) the fall of 2015 just after her NSLI-Y program. During her first year, she started studying Mandarin and was nominated for the Dean's List for students in excellent academic standing. In her spare time, she volunteers with a program called "Conversation Partners," which is an initiative to help exchange and international students acclimate to life at UIC. Through this program she is able to converse with international students from Korea and China.

Bilqees also participated in the 2016 Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Gwangju, South Korea to study Korean. Additionally, she was awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study at the National Taiwan University's (NTU) exchange program, where she spent an academic year in Taipei learning Chinese and studying Southeast and East Asian politics. While in Taiwan, she also taught English to middle school students in rural areas. She will start an eight month internship in August 2017 at an NGO in Seoul, South Korea called Asian Hope Camp Group (ACOPIA). The organization brings Korean and Japanese youth together to collaborate on poverty and natural disaster recovery.

Bilqees is a political science major and would like to work in political Korean and Mandarin translation in the future. She says that the opportunities she has had to teach and study abroad have allowed her to contribute to international communities and to prepare for her future career. “These […] experiences have given me a closer look at cultures that were once foreign. They allow me to build connections and compassion with other people all while improving my foreign language and communication skills.”