In January 2021, I heard that I had been accepted as an exchange student at Coe College just as the number of COVID-19 confirmed patients in the United States had reached an all-time high. I pondered a lot and was very worried, but I decided to take the bull by the horns because I needed experience living abroad in order to get a job abroad. Others say that they are sorry that I studied abroad during a pandemic. But I don't think so. I was able to experience the global panic of the pandemic in the U.S. and feel different political views on the issue. Also, there were not many people actually on the campus, so I was able to live in a good dormitory in a good condition. At the end of the semester, I was able to enjoy my trip more leisurely too. Although I couldn't participate in OT and field trips, it was an experience that helped me strengthen my internal stability and get closer to my goal of overseas employment. So, I want to call this exchange student experience a game-changer that changed my life.
Where is Coe College?
Coe College, where I attended, is a small school located in the state of Iowa in the Midwestern USA. There is a downtown area that takes about 30 minutes to get to on foot nearby, but I usually drove to Iowa City near the University of Iowa to hang out. In the northernmost part of the Midwest is Chicago, where many African Americans migrated during the Great Migration. Perhaps that's why most of the students from Chicago were black, and they were very proud of their identity. But Iowa is a white-dominant state, and most of the residents, including students, are white. So even if I went to Walmart nearby, there were white people who stared at Asians openly, but in school, cultural diversity is important. I-CLUB, which hosts international student-related events, has been vitalized, and events were held more than once a week during the semester. Coe has a high proportion of international students, with Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese students as the biggest proportion. However, there were no Korean international students at all, but I met some Korean-American students. It was a little lonely because the proportion of white people in the school and surrounding environment was high and there were not many Koreans. White people form the mainstream society, and black people have a very solid community of their own, making it difficult to get to know them. Asians came from so many different countries, and it was difficult to feel a bond because race alone was not enough to connect them. Also, when I was in the United States, 'Asian hate crimes' were occurring one after another. Although I wanted to protest against Asian discrimination within the school, the chairman of the Asian Association objected, saying the number of protest participants would be too small. In many ways, I was frustrated to see the association's position of not wanting to take action against Asian hate. On the other hand, my frequency of using English increased so much because the proportion of Koreans was small. I had to only use and listen to English from when I opened my eyes in the morning until I closed them at night.
Who runs the world? Korean girls!
I have always been proud of myself for being part of Sookmyung and for being Korean, so I wanted to leave a huge impression on America. I hoped that the students in Coe would remember me as not just one of the exchange students from Korea, but as Nara. I joined the dance team named 'Kicking Kohawks' and practiced regularly, mostly three times a week. Most of the students in the team were from Chicago and others were born in the States as well. My friends and I were the only ones who were both international students and Asian. To be honest, it was not easy to mingle with domestic students at the beginning of the semester. It seemed that everyone was not interested in gathering with us, so I tried to find my own specialty, which was K-pop dance. At that time, BTS and Black Pink were very popular there, so I practiced their dance moves. On top of that, I filmed us dancing to K-POP and submitted it for the Culture Show, which was a kind of talent show, run by the International Club. As a result, some students became interested in the music I danced to and we could have a conversation, knowing each other better than before. On the final day of the semester, our dance team including me performed in the library quadrangle. At the end of the performance, I danced to K-pop in the middle of there. I still recall, when the DJ turned the music on, how those Korean lyrics overwhelmed the whole crowd and how I felt right before I started to dance. Due to Iowa's lack of diversity, I could barely hear any K-pop in public or downtown. But I played K-POP music myself, encouraging people to enjoy it. That was a nice chance to promote Korea, my identity, and I nailed it!
Keep track of emails to reach out to various opportunities
There are so many events for students at universities in the United States. SAC, the student council, holds about four main events a week. There are various and abundant products for participants by holding events such as Scavenger Hunts at night and Bowling Night. Other clubs and professors also promote events, and students can apply to participate by email. Some events are first come first served, so students have to run to the place as soon as they can. One of the memorable events is an event held at a school restaurant called 'Recipes from home'. Students bring their own recipes and school chefs cook those recipes and provide the best ones as regular meals after voting. At that time, I wanted to eat braised spicy chicken so much that I entered the contest, but I won first place in the vote. The re-interpreted braised chicken in the U.S. is called Korean spicy braised chicken & potato, and the bones of the chicken were removed and the meat was cut into bite-sized pieces. For Americans, it was similar to stew, so I've been calling it Korean stew since that event. There are many big and small opportunities while studying in the U.S., so I recommend Sookmyungians try them. Through the event, I received prizes and gained recognition among my friends.
I hope my experience will cheer up the students from Sookmyung who will visit Coe College as exchange students in the future. Sometimes you may feel isolated and even stupid since your English is not as good as other students in the university. (I did!) But please remember that you are brave women who choose to live in a different environment, and you are already bilingual since your mother tongue is Korean. If you readers have any questions about the program, I am more than happy to answer as much as I can. On a side note, you can check the video I filmed and edited during the exchange program, including my K-POP dance performances. https://youtu.be/yBWCuALwzcg Click here or search 용오디션 (Nara the explorer) on YouTube.