Helen is from Baltimore, MD and an alumna of the Korean 2020 Virtual Summer Intensive program.

Reflecting on this past summer, I find that I don’t think of the sticky humidity of July or the salty spray of ocean foam. Instead, I think of the five weeks I spent as a NSLI-Y VSI student playing the 눈치 (nunchi) game, reading Korean folktales, and exploring Korean language and culture from my laptop.

Like many of my peers, I spent much of my time prior to the start of program reading blogs and watching video diaries published by alumni. I thought about all the 팥빙수 (red bean shaved ice) I’d consume, all the 노래방 (karaoke) sessions I’d go on with my peers, and all the stories I planned to share with my host family. When the announcement came in late March that we would not be travelling abroad, I briefly lamented the fact that my fantasy NSLI-Y experience would not come to fruition.

But then July rolled around, and any previous reservations or worries I had about the virtual program faded. The first thing I noticed was that NSLI-Y VSI was truly intensive and immersive, despite not actually taking place in South Korea. All of our classes were conducted fully in Korean, we had frequent quizzes on listening and reading comprehension, and we were expected to summarize all the concepts we learned at the end of each week in a conversation. In addition to my regular class, I joined a supplemental advanced class being offered by another Korean teacher from the program, along with two of my peers. After class ended on Wednesdays and Fridays, we would spend an hour diving even deeper into our study of Korean. We argued for and against school uniform policies, gave presentations on fad diets and mental health, and explained the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep entirely in Korean. Debating, reading articles, and analyzing academic texts, skills that I’d carefully honed in English for years, suddenly turned unfamiliar as I was tasked to relearn them in Korean. The challenging nature of the program became a source of inspiration to me; the sense of achievement I felt after successfully giving a two-minute presentation or raising a point during class, coupled with the unrelenting motivation my peers had to improve their understanding of Korean, encouraged me to similarly push myself to the limits of my linguistic abilities.

NSLI Y Korean VSI Students with their Textbooks

I also didn’t expect that I would forge such deep bonds with my class in such a short amount of time. Though we all hailed from different parts of the U.S., we supported each other hours after class ended, planning conversation practice around time differences and helping each other with our homework over text. Our class formed a similarly deep connection with our 선생님 (teacher) as well. Being an alumna of the NSLI-Y program, 조안나 선생님 made learning Korean extremely accessible. She made sure to meet with each of us individually at the end of every week to provide us with feedback on our progress and was open to hearing feedback from us as well. I remember early on in the program, I had mentioned wanting to practice my Korean typing skills more, and within hours, 선생님 provided me with resources to do just that.

NSLI-Y allowed me to rediscover just how rewarding it is to be able to learn about a new language and culture. I loved being able to relish in the excitement of my 선생님 at the end of every week when we presented our cumulative conversations. I shared feelings of triumph with my peers whenever we successfully sang a Korean nursery rhyme or successfully differentiated between the Sino-Korean and native Korean numbering systems. I found beauty in the way the soft syllables of Korean bridged barriers between strangers and transcended geographical distance, the way we all tackled the steep learning curve of studying a foreign language together. I wouldn’t trade my NSLI-Y experience for the world. I’ll always be grateful for everything I was able to learn and experience, and I will carry the memories and connections I made this summer with me for life.