Benjamin Olmstead - 2012 Program Participant
Why did you decide to apply for an international program?
Growing up in a small town it can be hard not to feel the pull of wanting to expand your horizons. I knew after a long time fascinating myself with odd bits of information from the world beyond my borders that I would study abroad as soon as I could. I did not want to end up trapped in the tiny world I inhabited. I was then, and still am, painfully over enthusiastic about learning how other people live.
The streets at night - Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Olmstead
Why did you choose South Korea? What drew you to International Studies Abroad?
One of the first people I met in college was from South Korea. Whenever someone, like her Mom, gave her a call she would instantly jump into a stream of fast-flying syllables and I'd be blown away. I thought it was interesting that someone could do something so natural and for me it would be so complex. I was curious enough to learn Hangul from her and amazingly it was pretty simple to grasp - seriously, try it yourself! I was encouraged by this small victory enough to consider South Korea as my first trip out of the country. Up to that point in time, I had thought Asian languages were impossible to even attempt to understand.
The way I chose ISA was actually simple: They offered a meal plan. As with every part of this decision to go to South Korea, the small inconsequential decisions made the most difference.
What was your favorite part about South Korea?
The landscape of Korea is beautiful. The way the sun claws the top of the mountains and shines down on this hyper-futuristic city is nothing short of sublime. The temples are adorned with dramatic and stylized paintings of waves crashing, dragons dancing, pearls emerging from the depths, giant fish surfacing, elegant cranes, etc. The city of Seoul itself exudes a warmth to foreigners, for example, the subway announces stops in three separate languages and on the whole many citizens are gratified that you find South Korea to be interesting. I have found that the smaller the country, often times the bigger the pride of the people! I suppose these are a few of my favorite things about Korea, but many of my favorite parts are hard to express. I felt on the whole that there was a great feeling of excitement and possibility here.
What made your program stand out from other programs in South Korea?
Our advisors were real people. They were honest about how they felt about things, and really that is something you need when you're in such a convoluted state of mind, like the one you find yourself in abroad. They represented ISA, but more importantly they represented themselves as individuals. When we were told things we had a great deal of point of view and could understand the "do's and dont's" of any situation much better.
Korea can be an insular country, even people your own age who are Korean may be intimidated by speaking to you, or may not want to put in the effort. Certainly there are a lot of Koreans who don't fit this measure, but at the very least we had our advisors as important points of insight into this place where we lived.
Tell us more about the type of support the local ISA staff provided you with throughout your program.
The staff of ISA supported us in any disputes we may have had in our classes, kept tabs on our health, and were looking for feedback a lot of the time. On the point of the classes the ISA staff were indispensable. Much of the time your expectations can be fuzzy in a Korean classroom. Even given how busy the advisor was, I was surprised by how effectively she mediated many points of confusion and possible pitfalls. One of the most helpful things about the ISA staff was just how much administrative clutter they moved out of the way for us. They enabled us to explore, which is what we were in Korea to do.
Now that you are home, what is your biggest regret?
I always lament that I didn't immerse myself in the language more or participate in more extracurriculars. When I went to China I tried to fix this by taking intensive language and enrolling myself in calligraphy; still, Korea has its own form of calligraphy. That would've been cool to know.
It would've been nice to know actual Koreans better (most of the people I became friends with were Chinese and European). Like I said, it can be very difficult, though I think Korean would've helped me on this front. I did a lot of good things though, like Tae Kwon Do and getting out of the city a lot. So maybe it was just due to the short time I spent.
Describe what a typical day was like for you in South Korea.
Typical day, with no events or nothing special? Typical isn't very typical for Americans in Korea. But! I would wake up very early to get breakfast, hopefully fall back asleep until class began. I loved my route to class, as it took me through a little forested walkway. You would see the older women with their visors on walking together. Then go through class.
When I got out I would take the subway to a cool place I had read about in my Lonely Planet book. I'd head back for Korean class and have a lot of funny exchanges with my European friends. Then we would hang out on campus and just talk on the stairs about this endlessly interesting place and find out more about each other. Despite the technology influx and smartphone crazes, Korea is a place where it’s still more fun to be social.
What did you enjoy doing on your free time?
I loved organizing adventures with friends. We had a Facebook page where we'd intentionally go out to find the spiciest foods or one where we set up excursions. One memorable experience in particular was a 2:00 a.m. trip to Noryangjin fish market to eat live octopus. We did a lot of “night-owly” things, and the Korean people in our social group probably found our misadventures amusing. The best things we did were organize these little trips: climbing a mountain on a weekend, checking out a place that supposedly has a great view, etc.
Filling up weekends and free time with new sights and experiences will keep you inspired.
What was your accommodation like?
We were kept in dormitories. They had spots to take off your shoes before coming in, a bathroom with a shower, hide-away spots for clothes under the bed, a desk, and of course sliding windows with amazing views. The doors to your room were high-tech and could open with NFC ID cards. There was a fridge for keeping your things on each floor, and then there was a microwave and hot water maker on the first floor.
Right outside were in-dorm convenience stores, haircuts (one of the best I've ever gotten), and banking. There was a bakery as well as a cafe, too. Again, lots of seating so you can socialize and events were sometimes held in the squares. We had a thing called Glocal Cafe; it was a good place to meet people, play board games, set up plans, and play Nintendo Wii.
How has studying abroad in South Korea impacted your life?
Well it will always be the experience I think back on when I think of my love for travel; it laid that foundation. New foods, new people, new places, days spent walking and looking. Coming home exhausted and happy about it. I know I was really living here. I can always point to this time and say that I was living life to the fullest.
It has pushed me to travel to many other places, and although that costs a lot of money you sometimes don't have, the return on investment is personally and professionally huge. Employers and colleagues have always been impressed by what I have learned abroad.