University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Diversity Abroad: Seoul, South Korea

March 10th, 2020
Stacy Ramirez in South Korea

My name is Joana Stacy Ramirez. I am a senior majoring in communication studies and completing minors in both international and Latina/o/x studies. Last semester I took a big leap out of my comfort zone and spent a semester abroad at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. Being the daughter of Mexican immigrants, a good portion of my life had always been focused on being a member of a tightly-knit family. Having never lived too far from my hometown I was also used to being available when needed, even while in college. This was one of my initial concerns when planning for a semester abroad where I couldn’t be as present as I would usually be. This experience would also be adding on to my many ‘firsts’ as a first-generation college experience. Thankfully--after the initial shock of learning I’d be moving somewhere the exact opposite of small-town Iowa- my family was extremely supportive and proud before everything was even set in stone. With the help of the Study Abroad office, the application process went by smoothly and I was able to get enough financial aid to make the trip possible. 

Life in the heavily populated city was always an adventure due in part to its sheer size, but more so because of the distinct features of the city. Within one day in Seoul, you could visit some of the most beautiful palaces, indulge in modernist aesthetics in architecture, and share dishes of the most appetizing cuisine this world has to offer. The rate at which I was able to fall in line with the lifestyle took me by surprise and made me realize how adaptable and independent I’m capable of being. Another thing that took me by surprise was the large number of international students from across the globe that had also taken a leap in pursuing such a unique experience. It was through conversations with both domestic Korean students and international students from diverse backgrounds that I was able to gain a variety of perspectives of South Korea, my home country, and the world at large. In these conversations, I was also seen as an American first before anything else. I was initially taken aback since I had grown up having to explain my ethnicity and “where I really came from” so often, to the point where, at times, it felt that was all people could see. Although I wasn’t seen as Mexican first, this part of my identity was still present and helped me make connections with other students from Latin American backgrounds. This new way of seeing and exploring my identity was refreshing especially coming from a country that can be hostile towards people of my background, especially in recent years.

Stacy Ramirez in South Korea

Despite being on a diverse campus, Seoul and the rest of Korea at large is near completely monolithic. Of course, there were times when I or some other students of color would get stares that would last a little too long, typically from elders or people in places where they didn’t come into contact with foreigners as often. However, this never came as a surprise to any of us since we knew what to expect when visiting a country that was historically reluctant to allow outsiders in. Coming in having done a good amount of research and knowing at least the basics of Korean language and formalities was beneficial to both parties. Small things like this allowed me to respect the culture and connect with locals, many times they would reciprocate with equal or even higher enthusiasm. In spite of these attempts, there were still times where a few of my peers felt targeted on campus and ended up relying on campus resources to resolve issues. Regardless of these setbacks, these friends were still the first to say that making the trip to Seoul was one of their better decisions in life. That being said, each person’s experience abroad is unique and dependent on many factors, some of which may be completely out of your control. One commonality nearly everyone finds is that your time abroad changes the way you see the world and can impact your life for the better. In that spirit, I hope that my experience can inspire others from minority backgrounds to let go of anything holding you back and take a leap at the opportunity we are all privileged to have. With the right mindset and preparation, your time abroad is sure to be nothing short of unforgettable.

Best of luck!

Stacy 

 

Please note that the opinions and views expressed by diversity ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.

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