Make sure you know before you go

Educational exchange should include cultural awareness

When embarking on an education exchange experience, it’s important that young people acknowledge the differences that exist from society to society. 

This acknowledgment is the first step in making sure that the learning taking place is healthy and beneficial to both the students and the country. 

For me, choosing an exchange destination for a semester in my third year was a simple decision. I wanted to be able to go to a place that would allow me to learn in a variety of ways, and not just in the classroom. That destination was Seoul, South Korea, where I was born and raised until I was seven years old but hadn’t returned to since visiting in 2008.

In August, a little earlier than most exchange students, I arrived in Seoul and was picked up by my family with whom I stayed for a couple weeks before moving into the Global House Residence provided for exchange students by Yonsei University. 

I must admit, I had it a little easier than most. I spoke the language fluently, had enough time to prepare before starting at Yonsei and adequate support from my family to make my transition for a semester in Korea smooth. 

Then started my exchange experience through the university. Orientation began and I was thoroughly uncomfortable. 

Orientation featured a student from the United States who’d just finished her exchange giving us tips on what Korea was like. I’m not sure if it was the “everyone here is an alcoholic” or the “everyone in Korea dresses the same” that didn’t sit well with me but there I was, a Korean-Canadian, hearing generalizations and stereotypes being tossed around in front of an auditorium full of exchange students who were just being introduced to the country. 

The worst instance though, took place a couple days later when I was asked by my new roommate, who I’d known for two nights at the most, when the North would attack the South. 

Or, actually, maybe it was having to watch my fellow exchange students speak in English wherever they went with little regard for the people they were often just talking at. 

English is a universal language and understood by most, however, in Korea — where the official language is Korean — I couldn’t understand how students could speak so naturally in a language that wasn’t understood by most people they encountered on a day to day basis. 

Of course, learning a new language fluently isn’t expected from exchange students, but learning the basics, like “hello,” “thank you,” “sorry,” or “excuse me,” would’ve taken minimal effort on the part of the students and made communicating with the public much easier. 

I soon realized that many exchange students weren’t ready to engage with the culture, country and its citizens in a respectful manner.

Before beginning the exchange experience, students should do more than just initial research on the place they’re intending to visit. They should make efforts to dispel any negative stereotypes or beliefs that may dictate the way they interact with the citizens they encounter and the country itself. 

As exchange isn’t simply an extended tourism experience, but rather an opportunity to learn from another culture over an extended stay, it’s important for the incoming students to put effort into accepting the differences they may encounter while abroad and act in an appropriate manner. 

Experiencing both the role of an incoming exchange student and that of a Korean citizen simultaneously during my time on exchange, I’m able to sympathize with both positions. 

I understand the difficulties of settling in a new place and the hardships associated with leaving behind what you know in favour of something foreign. However, I also witnessed the extra effort that many of the Korean citizens put forth in welcoming the exchange students and recognize how important it is for that extra effort to exist on both ends.

Before setting off on exchange, the Exchange Program — through the Faculty of Commerce and Queen’s University International Centre — helps students prepare for the potential culture shock they may face. Although these extra steps may seem trivial at the time and their importance is often lost in the excitement that the exchange experience induces, the preparation and research will allow for a meaningful exchange experience in the long run. 

Exchange is meant to be an eye-opening experience, where students can learn from other cultures, other education systems, and other people. But it’s also an experience where young people can learn about themselves in relation to the world and we need to appreciate it as such.

Jessica Park is a third-year Commerce student. 

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