Emma Cunningham - 2016 Program Participant
What inspired you to go abroad?
Back home in Chicago, I managed to create a glamorous life filled with expensive clothes, fancy dinners, limos, huge yachts and private jets. One morning, I found myself at 5-star hotel, eating room service, staring out at the window at my gorgeous city skyline thinking about how painfully miserable I was. I spent years trying to fit into some superficial mold and couldn’t remember who I was before the world told me who I needed to be. I needed something different.
The most jaw dropping place I’ve ever been to - Jogyesa Buddhist Temple in Seoul
A few weeks later, I met a friend of a friend who had just gotten back from his own teaching excursion and I couldn't stop talking to him about his experience and then a light went on in my head. "This is what I'm looking for!" With not a word of Korean and no legitimate plan, I pared my possessions down to almost nothing, quit my job, and said goodbye to the picturesque life I carefully created for myself, because in my heart, I wanted and needed something different. I couldn't be happier with my decision.
Why did you decide to teach abroad?
English and writing have always been areas I excelled in. After graduating with a journalism degree, I wanted to put my skills towards something that made a difference, and not just chase after depressing stories that you see on the news lately. Teaching English seemed like the perfect fit!
What is your favorite part about living in South Korea?
The fact that South Korea is such a strange and unusual culture makes every hour here an adventure. The culture shock will never subside, and I love that. I grew up in a small Chicago suburb and things got boring VERY quickly for my friends and I. Walking down the street here is entertaining because you never know what you'll see.
Lost in translation at Myeongdong Market during my first week in Korea
What makes English teaching in South Korea unique?
Most of my friends went and studied abroad in Italy or Spain during college. While I'm sure it was amazing for them, I can't help but think it's a little played out nowadays. Every sorority girl now claims to have this serious case of "wanderlust" because they drank pinot in Florence on daddy's dime for three months. I'm living and actually working 7,000 miles away from home, in authentic South Korea of all places, with 10 more months to go. I'm by myself and barely any English is spoken here. It's definitely a more intense experience.
How have the local staff at your school supported you?
The director of my school does everything she can to make me feel comfortable here in South Korea. She has almost become like my mother here! She took me to the doctor when I got sick and sometimes helps me grocery shop since I can't read Korean.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I would have had moved to Korea and began teaching right after I graduated college. I would have a lot more experience under my belt by now, which would make me more marketable for a job in another country like Dubai or Kuwait. Teaching jobs there pay extremely well. But there's no reason to dwell on the past! I am here now and enjoying every minute of it!
Describe your typical day in South Korea.
That's a hard question to answer. Korea is a culture where things change CONSTANTLY. I never know what kind of day lays ahead of me when I wake up and head to work. My schedule and duties could be the complete opposite of what they were the day before. But to sum it up, I do a lot of dancing to the ABC's and deal with 5-year-olds screaming in a different language.
My adorable kindergarteners! I had to learn each and every one of their names by my second day of work!
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Flight shopping! I'm always on the hunt for a cheap flight and thinking of where to head next during my vacation time. Manila, Hong Kong, and Taipei are my itinerary at the moment!
What is your housing like? What do you like best about it?
I love my apartment here in Korea! The floors are heated, which is wonderful in the winter months. I also am very close to the Han River, where I like to go on runs. I'm also close to a subway stop, which is my ticket to exploring this fascinating city.
What is one thing every individual should know before teaching broad?
Prepare to work! Teaching English abroad is no vacation, and if you come here thinking that, you're in for a rude awakening. I work anywhere from 10 to 14 hour days, sometimes with only one 20 minute break. Koreans work very hard and they expect you to do the same. Weekends and holidays will be your only free time.
Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
I'm still here in Korea! And there's no way I'm going home any time soon!
Stopped to ask this temple palace guard how I can earn street cred as authentic as his.
Would you recommend teaching abroad to others? Why?
One hundred percent! Living and working in another country will change you in ways you would never imagine. You will stuff your eyes with wonder and form your own opinion of the world. You will have countless adventures, gain serious wisdom, and lose any ounce of fear you thought you may have had.