Meet Gabrielle Neal (she/her/hers)
Program and Location:
Fall, University of Seoul: Seoul, South Korea
Political Science with Chinese Studies minor
Why did you choose to study abroad?
I chose to study abroad for three reasons: to see a really close friend, Kpop, and to explore career options for the future. My friend who was my roommate during the first COVID year invited me to come to her university so we could make up for lost time. Of course, I also enjoy K-Pop and K-Dramas so I had to visit for that aspect as well. Additionally, I wanted to find if this was an environment that was suitable for my future career.
What did you learn about yourself?
I learned so much about myself like how independent and persistent I can be when it’s something that I want to achieve. I had to do a lot of things that terrified me because I never had to do them before like climbing a mountain of documents and verification all on top of a pandemic, and fear. I was so excited to go but afraid to leave my comfort zone, but I have grown so much because of it and I trust myself a lot more knowing that I am capable.
What was one of your favorite parts of your program?
There are so many moments that I can consider being my favorite parts, but I think that the friendships and connections that I made is my most favorite and what I miss the most. There were these groups made up of one person from the university and around 5-7 international students called Seoulmate Groups and I got to see and experience a lot of Korea through them. We went to theme parks, movies, palaces, and most frequently out to eat. Through those outings we all became really close and it made it really hard to say goodbye to everyone.
What was your experience with navigating COVID-19 abroad?
I think COVID-19 did not really affect me as much as I thought it would. I had heard before that the rules were so strict and it was nearly impossible to do anything but that was not the case at all. Yes, there were gathering restrictions on the amount of people and there was a lot of contact tracing but that didn’t inhibit my experience. I was used to classes being online so I took that as an opportunity to take the zoom in a café or outside in the common area on campus. I even did class once inside a KFC next to the Han River, was it a bad idea, most likely but it’s a fun memory. Also, because of the varying air quality it was normal to wear masks everyday and it was unusual to not wear them.
How did your study abroad experience prepare you for your future career?
I want to work there in the future as an English teacher and maybe become a diplomat or ambassador. Because I have this experience, I have contacts, knowledge of how the country works, and some insight into the job market. I was also able to improve my Korean skills so I can communicate better and understand a little more how to navigate the language barriers with my future students. In addition to that, having spoken to people who learned English in classroom settings, I know what things I can include in lessons to help them learn English better and help them gain confidence in their speaking skills.
In what ways did your identity have an impact on your experience abroad?
As a Black woman, with my differing hairstyles and protective styles, there was a lot of curiosity around it. I got some stares on the subway, not harsh, but the attention can be off-putting sometimes. I noticed that whenever I wore my hair straightened or straight hair, I did not get looked at as often because I blended in. Many older people stopped me with my long braids to tell me they were pretty and to ask if it was real. There are not many places to get some of the products we use to keep up our various hairstyles, but there are some websites.
I can say, I was never excluded from anything because of my race.
Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
Be prepared to be observed. My skin is lighter, so I was able to blend more easily depending on my hairstyle. No matter what, people are going to be curious, they don’t have a lot of opportunities in smaller areas to see different people in real life. The older ladies will stare you down as well as some younger people, but no malice intended.
Where did you find support to navigate any challenges you faced abroad?
I did not really connect much with other Black women abroad, but I did have a couple friends who were Muslim and another from South America who I could share experiences with. Talking with them, I learned a lot about how much they were affected because of their race and beliefs.
What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
Do it! I can’t stress this enough, get out there and explore anywhere you want to go. There are plenty of scholarships that will pay most if not all of your expenses. As a low income, first-gen, minority I was able to have the best time of my life and so can you.
Would you do it again?