This summer I went to South Korea for six weeks where I attended a Summer School at Seoul National University (SNU). I’ll obviously go into more detail below, but if I had to sum up this whole experience into one paragraph, it would go something like this:
"The time I spent in Korea was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a perfect balance between academic studies and social life; I made friends from all over the globe as well as some friendships that I now treasure, experienced Korean culture first hand and studied at a world class university. Moreover it has opened up my eyes to the world out there, the opportunities available to me and encouraged me to take them all."
I don’t usually like writing much, but this experience deserves special attention, both for my own records and for others who are interested about Korea or this summer school. The timing for this school was so narrow for me, it’s amazing I fitted it all in. I flew out to Korea a week after finishing my exams at the end of my second year, the weekend after I got back I was due to start a two month summer internship building a website, followed by a twelve month industrial placement working as a Geophysicist and finally back to university for my final year.
I was still having some doubts as I was boarding the plane… “Am I sure I want to go to Korea for six weeks?” as it was my first major journey alone abroad. I had done a lot of research before going; for any Eat Your Kimchi or Seoulistic fans reading this, it’s all very true and an accurate portrayal of Korea. I’ve categorised everything, so read what interests you.
SNU and ISI
SNU is number one, many referring to it as the Harvard of Korea, it is also the only non-private university in Korea getting many government grants and producing world renowned research. The programme: International Summer Institute (ISI) is run separately from SNU, but uses all its facilities and resources. There are many courses to choose from all taught in English; I did Korean Language and Ceramics.
Fees ranged from $3500 to $5000 USD depending on your module choices, but I’ve also included the 3 field trips and accommodation into that. Fortunately my home institution paid for my modules and accommodation, so I only paid for my flights and other extras.
Being around friends 24/7 means that you can make some really strong bonds with people from all types of backgrounds. As a result I pretty much did everything with these guys, be it eating out, chilling out or just a good night out. There are many student hotspots in Seoul namely Hongdae where you’ll always find something to do, from noraebang (Korean karaoke) to bars & clubs and shopping.
FREE UNLIMITED REFILLS! That’s right, in Korea you can get side dishes again and again without paying and at the SNU canteens you can also get one free main dish refill. Amazing.
Seoul is packed with restaurants, mainly Korean cuisine. There’s a huge variety of food and generally I found it to be really healthy. Usual dishes would be a meat/fish with either rice or noodles cooked in different ways including an assortment of sides. Don’t tip in Korea; it’s seen as rude, they see it as someone just doing their job.
Restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores and shopping malls seemed to be open all day and night and they were always busy even at 2am (although not sure who has coffee at that time?). This was nice as you could do anything and not be restricted by time.
I can also say I'm pretty good with chopsticks now, bearing in mind Korean chopsticks are slippery stainless steel and flat it’s not easy to get the hang of.
Campus & Accommodation
The SNU campus is huge, almost like a small village. Settling in quickly, I felt very at home. With dozens of restaurants and canteens you could always find something to eat as well as convenience stores dotted around campus. It also has 3 gyms/sports centres varying in price.
Luckily ISI managed to put all students into the same building. The rooms were well suited and though you had a roommate, this wasn’t an issue for most people. You could do your laundry on the ground floor with drying facilities as well. The kitchens were minimal as Korean culture seemed to be eating out most of the time and it was cheaper to eat out.
Seoul’s transport system is excellent, rated the best in the world and I agree it’s many times better than London Underground. Subway, buses and taxis are the three main transport options all using the T-money card (like London Oyster Card) to pay. The subway is clean and air conditioned and generally pleasant to use, it’s also very cheap!
I was there during the monsoon season; it was mainly sunny with temperatures around 28*C. However when it rained (with the occasional thunder storm), it was heavy rain with streets flowing with water, this wasn’t too bad as the city drainage system was excellent. It was also typical to carry umbrellas everywhere as did I while wearing shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt 99 percent of the time and I never got cold.
People & Culture
Korean people are extremely friendly and I felt really welcomed during my time there. There aren’t many foreigners in Seoul apart from Iteawon, but I felt it was better like that. Most Koreans also understand basic English especially at restaurants and coffee shops. I also studied Korean language at SNU so had the opportunity to practice it which was nice.
In terms of Korean culture, there’s too much to write down, but Seoulistic has some great videos explain it, so check them out if you're interested.
During my whole time there, I felt very safe. The people are lovely and whether it be day or night, main street or back alley I was never looking over my shoulder. There were no incidents of crimes while I was there and that’s what I would expect with the level of public trust that is present in Korea. It’s hard to explain in words, but it’s mainly the atmosphere you get, which might have something to do with how kids are brought up there; to respect the things they have as well as their elders.
North Korea might also be on a lot of people’s minds, it was certainly a huge issue for both my parents/family and myself. Thankfully I ignored all the NK threats as do all South Koreans, while the international media make it seem like a big deal, I can tell you nobody really cares inside South Korea, it’s just the same old same old over and over again. Both the UK and South Korean governments know this, so no warnings are ever issued and there were never any problems while I was there.
A lot of people associate Korea with technology and being futuristic. Though it does have exceptional infrastructure including mobile signal everywhere even on the subway trains (while moving!), super-fast internet and free WiFi hotspots everywhere, it’s not the crazy cyber city that you may be imagining. Take those things away and it’ll be like any other modern city such as London with its own problems and faults. Nonetheless, free Wi-Fi is awesome!
One thing I also noticed was everything was dominated by Korean chaebols such as Samsung, Hyundai and Lotte from cars to electronics and even food brands.
Cool stuff to do
Apart from the daily things you can do, Korea has many wonders to offer; some unique while others just fun! These will probably be better illustrated with pictures, though I'm only sharing a sample publicly.
If you’re thinking of going…
If you’re thinking of going to Korea…DO IT! It’s an amazing country with amazing people and you’ll have amazing adventures. Besides giving me memories for life, I experienced something unique; Korea and you can only do that by going there yourself.
Be prepared and do some research beforehand as the culture is quite different to the west. I would definitely recommend staying for a few weeks if you can and if you’re a student then look into summer programmes, many universities offer them in Korea.
As I left for England, one of the teaching assistants said to me “Welcome to Korea” and I can now say I know what he meant by that. I'm not sure if I would go back given the opportunity, as I would be worried it wouldn’t live up to my first time experience, I guess I'll just have to wait and see what happens.
The information given in this post are my opinions based on my personal experiences and should not be taken for fact.
Share your experience of Korea or if you have any questions about my trip then please post below.
Graduated with a BSc in Physics at University of Surrey and MSc in Applied Geophysics at the IDEA League.