Category Archives: East Asia

New Country, New Me (3 Things You Should Know About Study Abroad)


My name is Gio Caballero. I am a first-generation immigrant, United States Army veteran, non-traditional student, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) graduate, and 2020-2021 Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Alumni Ambassador. In the summer of 2018, I conducted cancer therapy research at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan.

Prior to my undergraduate experience at UCSB, all I wanted to do was learn molecular biology (because it was complex and I understood it) and then become a medical doctor (because being a health professional was expected in my family). My experience in Taiwan changed that; I am now a graduate student in psychology with an emphasis on consumer research at New York University. And in this blog entry, I will share my thought process during my study-abroad (from application to experience) with the situation of higher education today in mind.

             Arrived early and explored Taipei before the start of the program

Now is a great time to explore study-abroad

Consider yourself fortunate if you are enrolled in a 4-year university for Fall 2020 despite the low enthusiasm for travel. Although COVID-19 forced universities to start next semester virtually with some opting to go hybrid and caused general morale in higher education to drop, recognize that society is working on overdrive to best adapt to the new situation. And like many crises in the past, this too shall pass, but so do the opportunities that come with it.

In applying for any position, more than the attractiveness of the opportunity, I always think of the relative economic supply and demand. For instance, the best time to get involved in the market is during a downturn –the same can be said for study-abroad and scholarships: the planning begins now.

Expect changes and make back up plans

Going to Asia was the last thing on my mind, let alone study-abroad in Taiwan. I wanted to go to Ireland for a summer physics program that would have knocked out a year of physics in eight weeks, however, a forest fire in Santa Barbara caused the finals to be suspended. Grades were delayed and I missed the deadline for Ireland. I was forced to choose an alternate and was logically left with Taiwan. The application for study-abroad was a journey, no wonder applications are usually submitted half a year before. It involved reviewing school programs, professors, and academic literature; planning realistic goals, and setting implementations to achieve those goals.

The study-abroad experience in Taiwan was a game-changer. Not only did it help me win the Gilman Scholarship, but it also satisfied a big portion of the undergraduate experience that I lacked.

Study abroad solve peculiar obstacles

I was in my 9th year of undergraduate studies when I transferred to UCSB and I lacked general education and prerequisite courses to fully major in biology. I had no research experience and had not immersed myself in college life –the kind that help you reach personal growth. I could not afford two extra years and I wanted to graduate as soon as possible because I had already been aiming for graduate school and I did not want to use any more scholarships for undergrad. Enter study-abroad.

The study-abroad programs at UCSB provided tremendous benefits. It situated you to be immersed in a foreign land or culture and the academics were packaged in a way that maximized learning in a short amount of time. At National Taiwan University, I conducted molecular-biology techniques which included molecular cloning, polymerase chain reaction, cell culture, and western blotting –opportunities that were extremely scarce at UCSB. I worked toward my project from 10 AM to 6 PM Monday to Thursday, and either left early on Fridays or participated in a culture trip.

My summer experience was so good that even at 27 years old, I felt that I had reached another level of growth for a relatively short time, and I realized that molecular biology was not the career path for me.

In Jiufen with friends from the American Institute in Taiwan Youth Camp


On my academic transcript, the study-abroad in Taiwan counted as 8 units of electives; however, it was much more than that. I became a much more grateful person and it provided the ground for me to re-imagine my assets and talents in the search for a career after the military.

Whether by insight or negation, growth is achieved by seizing the opportunities of the moment. For non-traditional students like me, there is only so much time to explore academic pursuits before the dread of launching a career preoccupies the mind. Study-abroad is an accelerant, and the Gilman Scholarship, for a lack of a better word, is an enabler.

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New knowledge + more self-awareness = ?

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. 

Alumni Ambassador Rachel Wong with fellow Gilman Scholar (photo by Rachel Wong)

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. 

DMZ South Korea (photo by Rachel Wong)

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.

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Now that my program has officially come to an end, I can’t help but feel a little sad. I’ve made so many memories and I’ve met many amazing people. I can confidently say that I’ve grown as a person and as a student.

I quickly adapted to the new culture and I realized that, at some point, I could even see myself living in Seoul. The massive comfort that I felt is partly due to the amazing friends I’ve made. Emmy, Cherry, Passang, and Bianka made this program even more special than it already was. We encouraged, protected, and deeply cared for one another. We became close pretty fast and now it feels as if we’ve known each other for years.

claudia crowd

They have helped me grow more confident in myself and to not let my positivity be affected by others. I used to be extremely wary of doing seemingly hard or new things, but my friends, and the circumstances that I’ve found myself in, have allowed me to make quick decisions and be more independent.

For example, I’ve seen my friends successfully use the bit of Korean that they know, so I stopped being scared to speak Korean. I’ve used it while shopping, at the pharmacy, catching a cab, and more!

My friends taught me that regardless of what happens, they’re there for me, and that I can’t let some setbacks stop me from doing what I need to do. When we were filming our interviews and editing we ran into a few problems, including faulty equipment, unsuitable set locations, unreliable people, and last minute shooting reschedules. As the director for my group I felt like it was my responsibility to fix all of these problems and there were times when I was really stressed out.

claudi hongdae

For instance,  we had to shoot in 100 degree weather two days before the final project was due. It was tough finding suitable shooting locations but after it was done I felt extremely proud of our group.

My directing, cinematography, and editing skills have improved significantly. Now I hope to obtain a media internship either for this Fall or next Spring, and I will want continue taking Media Production courses.

claudia video

When we finally exported the final version of our project I was overjoyed. In the past I’ve had group film projects that were problematic, which caused me to dislike our end product. This time however, I was there for each step of the process, and I had a supportive and talented team. This project turned out to be what I had envisioned. It was great seeing how an idea of mine could take shape and evolve into this wonderful and quality video project.

It was an amazing experience! Thank you to the Gilman International Scholarship for supporting my future!

claudia students


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Filed under Claudia in South Korea, East Asia

Embracing the nature

From the moment you start heading out of Incheon Airport you will notice the beautiful and natural landscape that is South Korea.

City landscape

First off, if you walk around the capital, you will notice that Seoul’s urban landscape was built according to the existing land. Streets and buildings were developed on or around mountains and, as a result, some streets feel narrow, steep, long, or hilly. Even the university I am staying at (Dongguk) was built on a mountain! Everyday I climb up and down this long hill (which has been a struggle since we are currently experiencing one of South Korea’s worst heat waves). Throughout Seoul you will find that there are many trees and some nice resting areas. It is a great combination of a developed metropolis and wild beauty.

If you head to other cities where there are less tall buildings, you will get to experience even more of South Korea’s natural beauty. In the city of Gongju, mountains and hills are everywhere. During my two day stay there, I noticed local and older residents who seemed to be fine walking, hiking, and working, up and down these steep streets.

The beautiful nature found throughout South Korea is perhaps one of the main reasons Koreans take street cleanliness and recycling very seriously. It was one of the main aspects of this country that stuck out to me the most. Most stores charge you money if you want a plastic bag, there are barely any public trash cans. Although, if you manage to find any, they have labels on them for the proper type of waste. As a result, I have become very conscious about what I buy. I always think, “does my purse have enough space for this?”, “is there somewhere I can throw this out?” Which leads me to buying less or nothing at all!

I would love it if New Yorkers could adapt these recycling habits. However, that still seems highly unlikely. For now, I’ll just enjoy Korea’s streets and beautiful nature.



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Filed under Claudia in South Korea, East Asia


Have you ever been somewhere for a while before it finally hits you that you’re there?

Yup, that’s South Korea for me.

It could have been that intense 14 hour flight, or maybe the fact that I am surrounded by an amazing group of new friends, but it took me a few days for it to finally sink in that I’m in a whole new country. I’d like to think that this means that I’m incredibly comfortable with my surroundings. Despite the differences in culture.

When we first arrived it was late at night, and I was a little concerned about how our large group of “foreigners” would stick out and be received. However, almost immediately I saw how people generally welcomed us. Anyone we spoke with was polite and understanding of our lack of Korean. There have been instances, mainly with older Koreans, where they will blatantly look at some of us with extreme curiosity or shock. It’s actually kind of funny.

Something that has actually really shocked me is the amount of food they all eat. Our Professor was born and raised in Korea, so whenever we go out to eat lunch and dinner he urges us to continue eating even when we’re already full. Sometimes he gets food for us even when we say we’re not hungry! Meat is eaten a lot here in Korea, and I can’t believe I’m actually craving a salad right now.

We get breakfast from Dongguk University’s cafeteria every morning, and even those can be a lot sometimes too. Below is a picture.


Despite all of this, I feel well adjusted to South Korea.

I got a hang of their weird sidewalks that double as car routes, their constant steep hills, the humidity, and found beauty in their vast mountains and the architecure. I made a lot of new friends and I am making great memories here.

We recently went to eat ‘samgyeopsal’ (grilled pork belly) and that was an amazing experience. *Note: this was before I started craving salads.* We had a a whole room to ourselves since there were 20 of us, and we split up at two long tables that were filled with little side dishes and a little hot grill. The meat came and we had to cook them ourselves. We were each given seat cushions for us to sit on the floor and aprons to not dirty ourselves. The room got hot, so the owner came in to open the windows and screen doors for us. The nice summer breeze came in and kept me comfortable for the rest of the night. We laughed and chatted all night long and I remember thinking that I wish my friends from New York were here to enjoy this too.


It was this moment that made me finally realize that I’m actually here in Korea. I was sitting back, eating my pork belly, enjoying the summer breeze that came in through the window, and I was watching everyone cooking meat and picking up food with their chopsticks. I looked down at my apron and my legs spread out in front of me and thought “I feel so relaxed.”

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Filed under Claudia in South Korea, East Asia