Claire is from Atlanta, GA and participated in the 2019 Korean Summer Program in South Korea.

안녕하세요! 저는 클레어 입니다! 작년 여름에 전주시에서 한국어를 공부했어요.

The day I received the notification from NSLI-Y about my acceptance to study Korean in Jeonju, I distinctly remember the wave of emotions that overwhelmed me as I sat, stunned, at my kitchen table. Not only was it a mixture of shock, excitement, and accomplishment, there was also a very distinguishable feeling that I had not expected: fear.

Indeed, I was fearful of the experience. The few weeks before my departure, I was a mess of nerves to the point where I began having second thoughts about whether this was a good idea.

Why? 1. Spending over six weeks outside the US, let alone in a country over 7000 miles away, was a reach from anything I ever had to do: the furthest I had traveled was Vancouver, a mere six hour plane ride across the country. 2. I had absolutely no knowledge of Korean besides what was offered in the pre-program handbook, and from some fellow NSLI-Y classmates who I contacted before our departure, they already had a handful of Korean knowledge under their belt. 3. I was not well versed with Korean culture to any extent. I neither listened to KPop nor watched Korean drama, and despite the large Korean presence in Atlanta, the only Korean dish I was familiar with was tofu soup or 순두부 찌개.

Needless to say, I was very unfamiliar with the language and culture, and for applicants who may not have any experience with studying abroad or their target language, it’s safe to say they might have experienced the same concerns.

However, don’t worry! 걱정 마세요! NSLI-Y Jeonju 2019 became one of the defining experiences of my high school career that not only changed my perspective on global studies but also sparked a new interest in Korea as a whole. In summary, it was life changing.

Claire posing in a wooden building in Korea

But to break the program down to new applicants, here is a holistic view of my experience.

Topic: NSLI-Y Friends and Classmates 친구들과 함께 The first impressions of my NSLI-Y experience started with my new friends, who I met in Washington D.C. during orientation. They were the first and last memories of my journey to Jeonju in Korean and in the States. Despite coming from places across the U.S., including Texas, California, Arizona, and even Missouri, we created lasting friendships that I will never forget. From the smelting Jeonju summer humidity to the sudden torrential storms, we endured through six and a half weeks of rigorous study and language acquisition, yet we had the best of times.

Usually, our go-to shopping spot was 객사, a large outdoor tourist area with dozens of cute clothing stores, makeup shops, and restaurants. We always had our fill of delicious 빙수 ‘bingsu’ with karaoke sessions at a 노래방 with an occasionally last adrenaline rush at the 디스코 팡팡 ‘disco pang pang.’

But overall, the many memories we cultivated as international students living in Jeonju were filled with happiness and support. No on ever beat each other down; they were all just bitter sweet moments at the end of the program.

Claire and a friend on the beach in Korea

Topic: Korean Class 한국어 수업 As a complete beginner in Korean, the first few weeks were quite a struggle. My 한글 (hangul) was only slowly improving, my pronunciation was way off the charts, and I could hardly catch an ‘안녕 (hello)’ within casual conversations. To add fuel to the fire, our teachers started off class with minimal English, but only basic Korean, which left me panicking. However, as we built up our vocabulary, enhanced our listening skills with dialogues, and improved our reading and writing skills with hours of homework, within the second week, I discovered that I could understand what they were saying through context clues and hand gestures. Classes became enjoyable and sometimes humorous, especially as our teachers cracked jokes.

After three weeks, the language gains I experienced were shocking. We had an oral midterm completely in Korean that served as a placement test, dividing us into three classes based on fluency levels. Let me tell you, that week was hectic; most people barely got a wink of sleep, but we somehow managed to push through while stress-eating choco pies and indulging on Georgia Cold Brew coffee.

Although it was a lot of work to keep up long schedules of class punctuated with ten minute breaks, I soon created close friendships with my classmates as we struggled, learned, and improved together. The teachers and tutors were the best, putting in all of their effort to help us understand the material. It was teamwork until the end. 화이팅! (fighting!)

Claire poses under a ceiling full of lanterns in Korea

Topic: Cultural Experiences in Jeonju 전주문화체험 From hiking with mosquitos in 안동 Andong to having photoshoots at the gorgeous 불국사 Bulguksa Buddhist Temples, the cultural excursions provided an interesting break from our studies. Instead, we were immersed within ancient Korean culture, taking a bus around the country on a two-day field trip. Not only did I have some of the best and most famous Korean foods, such as 안동찜닭 Andong jjimdak, but I also bathed in the beautiful scenery of Korea’s mountains, beaches, and other natural landmarks.

However, back in Jeonju was where we experienced some of the most exciting traditional Korean traditions. Soaking ourselves in 42 degree Celsius 찜질방 jimjilbangs, a stone heated sauna and spa, we had the ultimate relaxation experience during one of our last weeks. Additionally, we had the chance to rent out traditional 한복 hanboks within the famous 한옥마을 Hanok Village, one of the oldest landmarks within Jeonju. While it was burning hot in the costumes, we had one of the best weekends during our stay, not to mention all the amazing pictures we managed to snatch in the blistering heat. Not only did these cultural experiences cultivate understanding in Korean culture but also exposed me to societal traditions that extend into the modern day.

Claire poses with her host family in a green space with flowering trees in Korea

Topic: Homestay Family 홈스테이 가족 Finally, the defining factor that made my NSLI-Y experience so exceptional was my homestay family. From the initial language barrier— for which we had Papago to communicate basic phrases— to sharing full conversations over a multitude of topics, we established a close bond that I still cherish today. They welcomed me with full hearts, cooked me delicious food, and took me on numerous excursions around Korea, where we shared some of our most beautiful memories together.

As for my language gains, listening to their natural conversations and learning their speaking styles accelerated my Korean comprehension, composition, and oral acquisition skills. They not only helped me plow through the hundreds of grammar patterns we learned at school but also set aside time to make sure I felt comfortable and accepted within Korean society. By the end of the program, they were no longer strangers but family members for whom I owe so much of my gratitude. I really couldn’t have made the progress I did without their help. 그래서, 정말 감사합니다. 너무 보고싶어요!

Overall, NSLI-Y provided me an opportunity of a lifetime that I never could have imagined. It not only widened my social lens, but it also allowed me to discover characteristics and interests about myself I never knew I had. It as much of a period of cultural immersion as it was a time of personal growth and accomplishment. Every experience, stumble, and obstacle was just part of the journey toward fluency. From the many memories I made, the friends I left behind in Korea, and the time I spent immersed in Korean I society, I fostered myself as a student, international ambassador, and a language lover that forever changed my life. And if I were to turn the clock back to the summer 2019, I wouldn't have changed a single thing.

So, ultimately, to the beginners in Korea, or any other country, don’t worry! Your experience will be what you make it, so embrace challenges and thrive in unfamiliarity. It will, without a doubt, be one of the most memorable summers of your life.

Good luck! 안녕!