Haerim - Seoul National University

B. Law / Arts
Semester 2, 2016

Academic experience

I studied 5 subjects at SNU (full-time equivalent of 4 subjects at UQ): Politics and Society, Korean Literature in a Global Context, Globalizing Korea, International Political Theories, and International Organizations. The first three were taught in English, and the latter in Korean. All subjects were international relations majors (Politics and Society, International Political Theories, International Organizations) and Korean majors (Korean Literature in a Global Context, Globalizing Korea) of my Arts degree. 

The subjects' difficulty levels greatly depend on whether they are taught in English or Korean. Being the top university in Korea, the subjects taught in Korean were extremely challenging (especially as I had to take 3rd or 4th year subjects being a 4th year at UQ at the time), and most students were extremely stressed as it was the second last or final year of university. Because none of the classes were recorded, I found it helpful to record the Korean lecturers myself and listen to them later.

The academic atmosphere took some time getting used to - because of the culturally-embedded seniority system, many professors tended to treat students authoritatively, but at the same time, left us to work out a lot of the assessment requirements ourselves. Lectures are small (usually max 50 students) and rolls are called; students ask for permission to go to the bathroom depending on the lecturer, and there is much less discussion/ debate/ student input than at UQ. Students are also much less likely to email professors/ seek consultation, but I would strongly encourage all international students to do this - they always seemed to appreciate having an interest in getting things right and clarifying things with them. And although it may seem daunting at first, I think it always helped me to ask questions in class.

Personal experience

I gained so much from my 6 months in Seoul. I found it difficult to do anything at first because being born in Korea, I look Korean - and everyone expected me to just understand them, and that definitely made me feel very self-conscious of my accent, what I said and how I acted.

But as hard as it was in the beginning, learning how to get things done yourself is a great skill in itself, and my Korean improved to a great extent when I pushed myself to engage with the local community. That being said, I do feel like it's very important to get connected to a social group. It may be your group of international friends, a local church, a club from university (I became very close with the people at a church I attended as well as with people I worked with); but it really does help you settle in and make the best of your 6 months. I'd suggest trying to integrate with not just your fellow international students, but with the locals. I made friends I know I will stay in touch for life through these social groups. 

Travelling in Asia is cheap when you fly from Korea, and I went around domestically as well as overseas, to Beijing, for a week. Planning travel can be a pain when it's exam period, so I think it'd be useful to work out which weekends/ weekdays you'd be free over the semester early. There were a LOT of public holidays in Korea when I went! I always had to remember that on some public holidays nothing would be open, and I got a lot of this information from my Korean buddies I met through the SNU Buddy system. 

Having a job (teaching English to adults aged 20 ~ for four hours a week) also allowed me to get into the rhythm of things and leave time to enjoy travelling and exchange life as well.

Accommodation

I applied for dorms but didn't get in. And although it may be stressful trying to look for accommodation off-campus, I would recommend it. There are more places to eat and explore, as well as more opportunities to go for a drink/ meal with friends in the area if you're not living in dorms.

The most popular places for international students seemed to be places near SNU train station, Nokdu (a little far from uni but great places to eat!) and Nakseongdae Station (in that order). I think the easiest way to look for reliable accommodation is to join the SNU International Students Facebook page from past semesters/ years to see if anyone is renting out the room they've used. Or if you can pay for yourself to stay a week in Seoul, there are more offers once you get to the area.

I'd recommend living with a housemate, or even a roommate. I heard from students living alone that they had a bit of a hard time emotionally, especially in the beginning.

Budget

Transport is about $1.5 per train trip, but there is a shuttle bus which operates for free from SNU Station and Nakseongdae to the campus. Drinks and food are much cheaper than in Australia ($3-4 meals at the uni cafeteria) but of course, eating out does add up. A lot of people I knew paid about $400 - 550 a month for a pretty big room to themselves with a shared bathroom with housemates (and hardly anything for water, electricity and gas) - but it really varies a lot. I paid $250 sharing a room with a domestic student, but we didn't have a kitchen and ate lunch and dinner out everyday. I didn't mind it, personally - university life was busy and I don't think there would have been neither room nor time to cook, but it all depends on your living preferences and budget.

Professional development and employability

I think the skill I developed that will contribute to my professional development is interpersonal skills. Meeting people from all over the world really broadens your perspectives.

Highlight

The highlight was definitely getting to know the friends I made over there. I think it's important to open up and let people know who you are (as cliche as that sounds) because many international students are on guard at first and tend to follow the crowd in a lot of the activities. It was only when I became close with my friends that I learned they were having a hard time just as I was. I really felt like I had a home after I got to know people locally, as well.

Top tips

Be yourself and don't feel pressured to do such and such thinking "but I'm on exchange". I'd encourage students to have courage and take everything at their own speed and direction, and not worry about people - there will always eventually be people interested in the same hobbies/ interests as you.