Mary Schwark - 2013 Program Participant

Growing up in a small town in the middle of cornfields Mary never expected to live a life that involved so much adventure and new experiences. Studying abroad empowered Mary to do anything and everything she wants in life, without any limitations, and she is now living full time in Seoul to prove it.

Seoul's Sunset from the Top of a Building.
Seoul's Sunset from the Top of a Building.

What made you select ISA for your international program?

I would be lying if I didn’t say that it was the only program my school offered in Korea. But, I was actually the first student from my university to go to Konkuk in the Spring term. I was actually recommended to go through the study abroad program by a professor that helped me with the whole process. ISA was brand new to our school with the Korean program. That made it more exciting because I was the one to see how the program was for future students.

Nevertheless, ISA looked like a really great program with some awesome benefits. I was excited to go on the excursions and see more of Korea besides the city of Seoul. I wanted to go out to Jeju and see the Hawaiian like atmosphere or the beaches of Busan. The excursions and also the fact that a language class was required of the program were two huge factors in me choosing ISA. I had been studying Korean for a year on my own, but I was so excited to be able to study in a school setting in the country where the language is spoken.

What advice would you give to other students heading to Seoul for a study abroad program?

If you want an experience of a lifetime you will need to have a grasp of the culture and a wide open heart. I say a grasp of the culture because it can be quite the culture shock when you first get here. You may listen to the music or watch Korean dramas, but that has nothing to do with when you actually live or study here. Honestly, a small grasp of the language and some of the key social cues, such as bowing or food etiquette, will help you greatly when you first come here.

I cannot stress enough that when you study abroad you have to go to that new country with an open heart. You have to be willing to be adventurous and maybe even change yourself a bit to fit in. There may be some things that are socially unacceptable that need to change during your stay. Of course it will be hard but in order to have a good trip there are some Western things that are not going to sit well with an Asian country. Studying abroad is the adventure of a lifetime, but you have to be open to the adventure.

In the end, it could easily lead to a new way of life that you didn’t think you would enjoy. Something as simple as saying hello to a store owner when first walking into a store or bowing when receiving something can become a habit. Habits may be hard to change, but your heart for the country will only grow over time.

What made Seoul an ideal place to study abroad in South Korea?

There are so many opportunities here. You are in the biggest city in South Korea. The transportation here is amazing for any student because it can take you anywhere in the city. I guarantee you that the train can take you near the destination you are looking for no matter what. The metro is very cheap and super effective for any traveler.

There are a massive amount of things to do in Seoul. You can see a broadway show, the live filming of a television show, or a kpop concert; you can find a new restaurant to try, and so much more. There may be times when you feel bored, but I promise you that you will always find something to do. It can be as simple as studying at the local café near campus - you may even spot a kpop star on the way. The opportunities to explore the city and its culture are endless. With amazing transportation and so much to see, you are bound to get more out of your education than just your classes.

Which course did you enjoy the most during your study abroad program?

I was a Communications Television Arts major at my home university, which is essentially film studies. When I studied at Konkuk, I actually had two favorite classes. My two favorite classes were Korean Cinema History and Understanding Global Cultures. But, out of those two my absolute favorite was Korean Cinema History for a few different reasons. I found it fascinating to study how the film industry grew in Korean society. It amazed me how far behind Korea was in terms of film technology and editing software compared to America throughout the 70s to the 90s.

I was fascinated to see how much they grew and some of the more risqué concepts that they started to film. Some of my favorite films are Korean films. They have such a great grasp of the thriller concept and they are very good at twists and turns. I wanted to study film here to someday and work in the international film industry. I wanted a good understanding of how the film industry was developed here and how far they have come.

The class was very interesting and we even got to watch some Korean films. We watched a completely silent film that was narrated by a guy that was standing on stage in front of an audience watching the film behind him. I was so fascinated by the whole concept. I learned a lot and as an added bonus we had some celebrities in our class that go to Konkuk. Apparently, it’s not out of the ordinary to see them, but my friends and I were still a little star struck. 

How would you say studying abroad has impacted your life?

I have been studying abroad since I was in high school. It started when I went on a trip to Italy for two weeks that my Mom insisted on, even though I was hesitant. It ended up being an amazing experience and I knew that I wanted to live overseas once I was done with school. After Italy, I went to London, Paris, and finally South Korea.

I find nothing more rewarding than going to a new country and really diving into the culture. At first you don’t know what to do, but as you spend more time there, you become acclimated and more in tune with your surroundings. Study abroad has impacted me in the best way possible. I have grown so much as a person and have grown a heart for people and different cultures. I cannot stress enough that being in a new country with a new culture will reveal to you a brand new you, if you let the experience mold you. Going on new adventures, stepping out of your comfort zone, and just letting go will lead to something amazing.

This trip with ISA was one of the greatest memories and I will cherish all the people I met through the program. I still keep in contact daily with many of the students that I met through the program, and we hope to meet again in South Korea next year. I came to South Korea during my last semester of college and it was the best semester of my college career.

I am now living in South Korea as an elementary teacher full time and a musical actress part-time. I feel like there is nothing holding me back from what I want to achieve in this new country. The benefit of studying abroad is that you come to find that there is nothing that you can’t do. If you have the support of your parents, your school, and your friends (no matter how much they don’t want you to leave), then there should be nothing holding you back. It’s an adventure of a lifetime and it could lead to something amazing. You could realize new things about yourself that change your way of thinking for life.

If you would have told me my freshman year of college that I was going to live in South Korea after I graduated, I would have told you that you were crazy. When opportunities to be overseas present themselves, your perspective of life and of the world change for the better. Honestly, the impact of study abroad is something that I can’t really put into words. But, in one word I would say the impact is growth. Growth in not only who you are, but who you become later on. The experience will change you and continue to change you as you go about your daily life. You will remember your study abroad experience for many years to come.