Hi everyone! My name is Rachel Wong and I’m a 2019 graduate of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I majored in International Studies with minors in Geography and Asian Studies. As a Gilman Scholar, I studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea in Fall 2017 at Ewha Womans University. Following my college graduation, I served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Taiwan for an academic year. For 2020-2021, I am serving as one of the Gilman Scholarship’s Alumni Ambassadors.
Studying abroad in Seoul changed me in ways that I didn’t expect. I expected to gain knowledge of Korean history and politics, make new friends, and immerse myself in a new culture. I expected to get culture shock and miss the familiarities of home. I didn’t expect to become more conscious of my identity, and I definitely didn’t expect to stumble upon a career interest.
Inside the classroom
Coming from a small liberal arts college, I was suddenly offered a plethora of course offerings on every subject imaginable at one of the largest women’s higher education institutions in the world, Ewha Womans University. I have always wanted to take courses on East Asia; as a result, I purposefully took courses that highlighted Korean history and East Asian geopolitics at Ewha.
Throughout the semester, I read about Korea under Japanese occupation and, later, martial law, the chaebol influence on the Korean economy, and the collective clout that the Four Asian Tigers had in Asia. Looking back, I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from Korean scholars, reading articles, and literature by East Asian academics. The coursework exposed me to knowledge that I might not have encountered back at my home institution. Little did I know then that my academic interests would shape my professional interests as well.
A closer look inward
Besides understanding Korea and East Asia better academically, I also understood my own identity and personality better outside the classroom. Moving to Korea for 4.5 months for a direct enrollment program and not knowing anyone was extremely daunting. I had to step outside my comfort zone and be independent. This was difficult for me; I don’t like to stand out as a tourist, so I did extra research whenever I navigated the Seoul Metro system alone. I memorized subway lines and remembered directions before every trip. Eventually, I got to a point where I felt confident enough to go places without the additional prep time. So, I met up with another Gilman Scholar in Seoul for a short day trip outside of Seoul. Later, I even joined a group tour to the DMZ, where I was able to see North Korea with my own eyes across the Panmunjom.
In addition to being comfortable with independence, I constantly tried to interact with people that hold different opinions. My home institution can sometimes act as an echo chamber, and being at Ewha exposed me to other students who don’t necessarily share the same values or views as I do. Through different interactions, I learned to listen to others and communicate my opinions in an effective manner. Genuine dialogue doesn’t happen when both parties disagree and argue; it happens when both parties are open-minded and respected.
New knowledge + more self-awareness =?
I remember leaving Korea with a newfound understanding of myself and my new skills. I also remember leaving Korea with a sense of confusion. I’ve gained all this new insight, now what? For the majority of my college years, I struggled with finding my career interests. I jumped from considering academia to consulting to economics before even setting foot on Ewha’s campus as a junior. In the middle of my transcontinental flight, I realized that my interest in East Asia, my immigrant background, and my belief in global citizenship all points to a potential career in international affairs.
I know for a fact that international experiences are more valuable than what it appears to offer on the surface. An opportunity to travel is an opportunity to learn about lifestyles different from my own. An opportunity to study in a different institution is an opportunity to learn from local scholars and experts. While I originally thought receiving the Gilman Scholarship was my goal for studying abroad, it turns out that the Gilman was only my first stepping stone in reaching my full potential professionally.