That Guy Who Went to Seoul

Sarah Cornett

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Article by  Allie Donahue

“I don’t want to be that guy,” said Sam Curtis, junior BBMB major, and recent graduate of the Seoul, South Korea program with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

“I don’t want to be that guy who starts every sentence with ‘When I was abroad…’ It’s so hard! Sometimes it’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen.”

But that’s not really an option.

“It’s hard to say without sounding cliché … but I loved it. It was transformative,” said Curtis when I asked him the fated “How was your time abroad?” question.

Curtis was one of two Whitman students to travel to Seoul through a program offered by the Off Campus Studies (OCS) office, and the first Whitman student to study abroad in South Korea in almost 10 years. The most popular study abroad destinations for students are in Europe and Oceania. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 73% of students going abroad went to European countries, Australia or New Zealand, while only 27% studied in Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East.

The biggest challenge, and also the biggest reward for Curtis, was establishing connections with people. Most Whitman students study abroad with other Whitman students, but he was the only one in Seoul.

“I had to make friends from scratch,” he said.

In Seoul, Curtis made friends with people he never would have expected feeling close to. Most important to him is Jonghwa, a Korean student in the “Seoul-mates” program for Korean students who want to work on their English and learn about American culture. At first, the language barrier was really rough, but he and Jonghwa kept talking and ultimately achieved a real closeness.

“You finally understand someone when you understand their sense of humor,” he said. “I feel close to a lot of friends at Whitman, but Jonghwa holds a special place in my heart because I know there are so many barriers to our friendship.”

Overcoming them, Curtis said, is rewarding. Sam also became close with a group of boys from the United States Naval Academy. Some of them were a departure from the typical profile of the Whitman student, and getting to know them provided an opportunity to experience different kinds of attitudes and thoughts: a way to experience different American identities in addition to living abroad and adjusting to Seoul.

“I think we disagree on a lot of fundamental beliefs,” he said.

The things these guys believe, he said, are things that any Whitman student would second-guess. Just like he worked through the language barrier with Jonghwa, Curtis worked through these value differences with the naval academy boys.

“My long-held, deeply rooted, liberal beliefs were called into question,” he said. But when I asked him what, exactly, those now-questioned beliefs are, he wouldn’t say.

In addition to his new friendships, Curtis also faced a whole new world of academia. In South Korea, it is usually considered disrespectful for students to question the professor. Consequently, lectures lacked classroom involvement and relied heavily on long slide shows. Exams were also different, requiring a lot of memorization rather than skill application. It wasn’t easier, Curtis said, just very different.

Beyond the new social life and academics, South Korea was generally a strange new frontier for Curtis. It was the first time he was the only white guy in the room, and at 6’2″ he stood out. It was the first time he felt unable to communicate with people around him.

Why weren’t there any drinking fountains? Where were the public trash cans? What about the personal space bubble to which he’s accustomed? One of the most overwhelming experiences for Curtis was a giant, five-sport competition between Seoul’s two big universities, both of which have about 30,000 students. The Korean students cheered and danced a lot … and cheered and danced and cheered and danced. In fact, they were so involved in the cheering that they didn’t seem to be watching the game at all.

“I didn’t understand it,” said Curtis.

Finally, though, South Korea started to seem manageable. But just when that happened, it was time to leave.

“The sudden finish makes it hard to re-adjust,” he said.

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