Meet Jose Benavidez

Program and Location:

Academic Year, University of Seoul; Seoul, South Korea

Why did you choose to study abroad?

I decided to study abroad to further study the Korean language as I had already been self-studying it for about two years. I began to study Korean because of its growing pop culture, for it being rather unknown in the United States (compared to Japan and China), its unique blend of traditional and modern architecture, lifestyle, and culture, and for a radical change from a small city life to a large, megalopolis lifestyle with over 25,000,000 people packed in the size of the Raleigh Metro Area.

What did you learn about yourself?

I made more friends than I probably have ever made in the one year time frame in Seoul than all my years of schooling combined. Since I already created a strong foundation of knowledge about the region, secured a network of friends in the United States whose parents helped me to move in my apartment, I felt completely vulnerable but also much stronger due to my accomplishments.

First and foremost, I secured an actual apartment through a real estate agent. This route is guaranteed to be the least popular since one must know fluent Korean to understand the legalese written in the housing contract. I had help from my friend’s parents who were able to explain the complex wording into a more simplified Korean. This made me really feel independent as there was nobody, much less my parents or most of my friends, who could help me at that exact moment. Moreover, having to pay a steep deposit fee of 10,000,000 won ($8700 USD at the time — these deposit amounts are commonplace in Korea) was frightening as I had a huge incentive to make sure the apartment was in top condition by the time I left.

Secondly, I was able to network with natives much beyond the traditional “Seoul Buddy” group that was designed to help students with little to no prior knowledge of the language and the culture. Since I felt that this group was created largely for their own benefit (credits for them to study abroad or receive scholarships), I and some other exchange students felt as if the friendships were partly fake. Nonetheless, for people not so well prepared or versed with inside knowledge, I believe they are a great resource and help. Koreans are very warm and friendly, and they have a very group-minded, caring attitude for others. Not only that, but they are usually very social, and like to invite many people to share dinner together — so I was able to make the great majority of my friends through being invited (it helped a lot that I was a foreigner who could speak the language, as I was treated as almost a novelty).

What was one of your favorite parts of your program?

I felt the sense of community among my fellow peers and the fast-paced, safe society within the prospering city of Seoul made the program feel especially fun. I was able to go anywhere in the country and abroad due to its close proximity to everywhere. Within Seoul, the transportation prices are extremely fast, efficient, safe, and easy to use (unlike countries like Japan which forces you to pay extra for transfers between transportation companies, Seoul transportation is owned by the government). The people were the most fun as Koreans are really good at socializing in groups, and they really make you feel included (knowing the language is important). I always had many people, from exchange students, to exchange students, contact me everyday to hang out. I definitely believe the social aspect, ease of travel, and the wide variety of things to do were the best parts of the program.

What advice do you have to future study abroad students?

Although many say that the Korean language is not useful to know while in Korea, I believe that learning the language for your target country opens a million doors. Due to my knowledge of Korean, I was able to secure non-traditional housing, post on online websites about tutoring, speak to professors and friends with much less misunderstanding, and expand my network of friends as many Koreans are not entirely comfortable speaking in English. Securing significant funds for emergencies are a plus, finding a friend from the target nation to have his friends/family help pick you up from the airport is tremendously useful. Find out about frugal spending tactics to spend money on what’s important (like travelling to other nations), and find a good study-social balance (most important as I felt like I didn’t do enough because I had so many classes).

How did your study abroad experience prepare you for your future career?

My study abroad experience definitely prepared me to fend for myself in the United States or in Korea, Japan. From having only one contact in Korea and making over 30 friends in the end, to organizing my own rental contract, to navigating Seoul’s intricate subway system, to taking classes taught only for Korean students (taught in Korean), to leading my group of exchange students and translating for them, I gained first-hand experience of how it really is to truly assimilate in a foreign culture (in the US, this is all obviously much easier). Not withstanding, I even was able to work as a tutor both for the University of Seoul and on my own terms (had I continued staying with a permanent residency, I could still be making over $20-25 an hour — more than what my major could achieve at average starting salary). This taught me incredible knowledge of being resilient, resourceful, and determined to make the best out of my time. Money was never an issue as I was always frugal from the start, and am very conscientious about the value of investing. I also learned that Korean apartments are very environmentally friendly — I learned that I must separate recyclables – plastics, paper, etc, food waste, and general waste in Korea.

Moreover, I learned that exercising proper time management proved to be extremely beneficial as I had to balance an extremely stressful school life (17 and 23 credits respectively), tutoring, and hanging out with friends.

Were you surprised by anything during your time abroad?

I was able to see K-Pop concerts in May due to all of the festivals held in every Korean university (campus-wide) in Seoul. These festivals, after the free K-Pop performances, turn quite fun at night, and they last with extensive revelry until dawn.

How were your classes abroad different than if you would have taken them at NC State? Did you take any field trips or do anything outside of the traditional classroom?

In my Korean taught history classes, I took some class field trips on the weekends that were mandated by the professor. The professor would teach about, largely obscure in the West, historical topics in Korean. However, unless you are fluent in Korean, have a lack of electives to fill in your transcript like I did, and really want to attend a Korean-only class, then this will not apply to you. Nonetheless, in the “Mass Media” class that I did not partake in, the professor would frequently buy pizza, alcohol, and other goods in restaurants for the students to enjoy. He even invited them to interviews and meetings with famous Korean TV reporters. In my North/South Korean Politics class, the professor took us for free to see the North/South border.

Would you do it again?

Most definitely

In what ways did your identity have an impact on your experience abroad?

I felt as if darker skinned people have a slightly to moderate negative stigma in Korea. Korean people constantly strive to look white, and they spend a pretty penny for whitening makeup (even the men do this). If you are dark-skinned with a distinct accent in English or Korean, I believe you are even more likely to be scrutinized. Some night-life areas are off-limits to foreigners entirely, but from my anecdotal experiences, some of my Caucasian friends were let into a night-life establishment despite no Korean language skills, and sometimes only I was let in due to my language skills. However, this discrimination is very rare, and it is almost entirely limited to nightlife establishments.

Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?

I have not received any personal insults or been challenged to a fight, but I feel that I was treated slightly more negatively (ignored) in some rare occasions. Nonetheless, due to some news articles about foreigners being barred from some establishments, some older folks hurling insults or even challenging someone to a fight if you have a significant other who is Korean, I would exercise some slight caution. However, I think that these situations are very rare as most people do not care about your personal life, and I nor my contacts have not seen it occur.

Where did you find support to navigate any challenges you faced abroad?

I was able to find some consolation among my Korean and exchange student friends, and I spread the word about these issues of discrimination, but I feel as Korea will need several decades for it to change some of its internalized discriminatory thinking. Since Korea was a largely closed off society for thousands of years, it is not surprising to see that this happens — since the government itself has not passed an anti-discriminatory law (meaning any Korean proprietor can legally deny service or entry to any establishment or prevent employment to a foreigner), it will take more time and awareness to do anything about some of the underlying issues.