She is one of three Virginia Commonwealth University students who were awarded a 2022 Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which was established to help American students study abroad. In addition to the $4,500 from Gilman, she was awarded an additional $1,000 from the Presidential International Education Award through VCU.
Johnson said her family traveled around when she was growing up, which helped spark her wanderlust.
“And I really just liked the idea of going out and exploring a new country on my own and studying in a new place, in a new environment with different people than I’m used to,” she said.
She was limited on where she could go due to COVID-19, but Johnson ended up choosing South Korea. She arrived there in February and will return to the US on July 6. As a finance major, Johnson was intrigued by how South Korea transformed from an underdeveloped country to one of the most developed nations in a matter of decades. She was also interested in how South Korea’s nature and infrastructure coexist.
“I looked at all the scenery and I fell in love with all the pictures,” she said.
In addition to finance and business courses, Johnson said she has been taking Korean language and tabletop tennis classes.
“So I’m doing my major classes and requirements from VCU at my university here, and also learning the language and trying to be more immersed with the Korean students,” she said.
One of the biggest differences between Korean and American courses is the way they are set up. Johnson said while American courses are lecture heavy and have a lot of assignments, grades for Korean classes are based mostly on midterm and final test results.
“So basically, you just have to study on your own throughout the entire semester and just really hope that you do well on those tests,” she said.
Johnson said the grading scale took some time to adjust to, but lectures themselves are similar to college courses in the US Many of her professors speak English and attended American universities, so they adapted that teaching style.
Johnson said Korean colleges also focus more on academics and studying over socializing. She said this likely stems from their high school system.
“So they’re kind of used to study a lot, whereas in America it’s not as intense and you kind of can balance everything more,” she said. “You learn that skill as a high schooler, whereas in Korea studying is the top priority.”
Johnson said the language barrier has been one of her biggest obstacles.
“Sometimes you meet someone who knows more English and they can understand you better, or sometimes they don’t,” she said. “And you have to just get by with whatever kind of body language or motions or the level of Korean that you know to get what you are trying to say across.”
She said primarily speaking English has also made it harder to make friends. While many Korean students speak English, she speaks very little Korean, which is not always enough to have full conversations.
“But there are a good amount of opportunities, like different clubs and language exchange programs where you get Korean students who are interested in learning English,” she said.
However, Johnson added that even though she stands out and isn’t fluent in the language, everyone has been very friendly.
“Just walking down the street, some people will have a compliment or just be very polite to you – and that’s not always the case in the US,” she said. “So being in a country where it’s kind of ingrained in the customs is a really comforting feeling.”
Her favorite part of her experience has been meeting people from different countries. Not just Korea, but fellow international students from places such as Indonesia and Germany.
“Everybody has similarities, even though they go to different places, different customs. It’s nice to have the same interests and hobbies even though we are so different.”
Johnson said this experience has taught her to trust herself more — through government paperwork and navigating a country where she isn’t fluent in the language. Now she’s more confident doing things she wouldn’t normally do back in the states.
“You realize more of your own personal strengths when you’re put in that kind of situation. So I think I’m grateful for teaching myself that I can do things that I didn’t think I could do before,” she said.
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