I spent my high school years in the Philippines hanging out with Korean friends because I feared being alone in the foreign environment. To be honest, because of that behavior, I couldn’t really even respond to the simple question, “How are you?” I regret how I spent those days, especially after meeting a lot of Korean friends who after being overseas, made new friends from other cultures and broadened their perspectives. Hence, when I made the decision to participate in an exchange program, I wanted to go to place largely devoid of Koreans. I chose to go to the US for one year because I also dreamt of working in the US after graduation. I really wanted to experience life in the US firsthand, rather than rely on images show on media. I chose to go to Kentucky, although the university was actually closer to Ohio geographically.
Joining Greek Life
The Greek life style will likely be unfamiliar to most of you since it is not in common in Korea. My university had two types of social clubs, and they were fraternities for males and sororities for females. These clubs require quite a bit more commitment and involvement than usual clubs. I joined a co-educational club, the Latino Alpha Psi Lambda. While some may be surprised by my decision, there are plenty of advantages to living a Greek life, but the first and foremost are the connections. I made life-long relationships with fellow club members. Besides the close ties on campus, I had the opportunity to meet people of Greek ethnicity from other universities. My club congregated together in one designated city. It was quite unique how I met strangers and became friends immediately with our only commonality being that we were from the same club. I was also able to get more involved on campus. The Greek Life club does a lot of fundraising and volunteer work. For example, since I was in the Latino fraternity, we participated in a number of protests for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students. Moreover, as one of our members had a brother who was autistic, we participated in autism awareness events as well. Every fraternity and sorority has their Greek letters and crests that symbolize their clubs. I thought it was very interesting how they added them to tumblers, jackets, key rings, and even car plates.
With strengths, there are also disadvantages to everything. Since most things must remain a secret, I cannot go into too much detail. The first issue is the club joining process. It is literally a process, from step one to the final step of acceptance into the club. The process usually takes an entire semester, although it depends on the club and the club you are in because membership granting really depends on current club members. Recruits must pass tests and attend weekly meetings as well as work on major projects to prove their determination to the rest of the members. Second, it costs money. The fee depends on the club, but, regardless of the club, the membership fees are expensive and must be paid each semester. I saw many students give up club admissions because it was simply too costly to attend the fraternity or sorority. The last one is quite serious. It is hazing. Although I never personally experienced it in my sorority, it is an actual problem among many clubs. Some universities have been banned Greek Life because of hazing. In some cases, clubs that have very radical members, face criminal investigation due to death and rape charges. Personally, I suspect that this is one of the ultimate reasons for the exclusiveness of living a Greek life. As I stated above, most happenings and life in sororities and fraternities are secrets.
Keeping My Culture
My campus had a Korean club where American students interested in Korean culture would gather and learn about Korea. During my second semester at the university, I took on the role of Korean ambassador for the club, which is the only Korean position, and I was responsible for ensuring open communication between members and officials and presenting on aspects of Korean culture. Additionally, I worked on campus as the only Korean language tutor. It took some time to be officially registered to teach because I needed a social security number. Luckily, there were plenty of students who wanted to learn Korean but didn’t have access to any language learning facilities or tutors. The university offered two Korean classes, but once those classes were taken, there was nothing else. There were no other outlets either. The school did, however, have the major, Japanese Language. At first, I taught friends in the Korean club privately but it became harder and harder to set up tutoring appointments every time, and most of the students who wanted to learn Korean lived quite a distance from me, so I wanted to create an official class. It was a great chance to expose others to my culture, especially since they did not have any other place to do so. I was overwhelmed by my own personal interest in all the different cultures in the US such as Latino and their pop music, English slang, and so on, that teaching Korean was a great way for me to show pride in who I am and where I come from. I could learn how to mix the culture and keep our distinctive characteristics in a foreign country.
Road Trips in the USA
One of the biggest reasons I recommend others to go on an exchange to the US is the road trip. Since the US has 50 states, it is a wonderful experience to travel with newly formed friends to other states by car. On the road trip, it’s interesting to see the time zone changes as you move from one state to the next. Just like all the other exchange students, I traveled a lot during the summer and winter vacations and breaks or holidays. However, I will say that these road trips were the most memorable and special, especially because they are rare experiences for Koreans as the Peninsula is not big enough to drive more than 10 hours. When I travelled to Washington D.C, we drove 11 hours together to participate in a protest that was held on an issue we all felt strongly about. Road trips are all about friendship building. Listening to songs, talking until everyone is exhausted, and watching the sunset and sunrise together are truly very unique experiences. The best part of travelling in such a big country is that there is so much to see and feel, and this can all be done without the need for a passport or visa!
Now, I Am Here
I cannot say my life has changed for the better or for the worse, but I can say a lot has changed after my year in the US as an exchange student. I found part of myself, something I didn’t know existed facing challenges. Unlike what most people believe, an exchange student’s experience might not be that as sweet as media would have them believe, such as making a lot of good foreign friends or becoming fluent in the language. Still, despite all the discomfort because everything is new, from the people you meet, the food you eat, the language you use, to the place you live in, you’ll soon find yourself getting used to the new setting and blending into society. You will realize it wasn’t a waste of time or effort. While the experience may not be the one you dreamt of, it will surely be a memorable experience depending on how much you set your mind to the task of enjoying it.