Upon stepping off the plane in South Korea for the first time, 22-year-old CSUF international business major Karina Ortiz found herself alone in unfamiliar territory.
“It was really weird because I didn’t know where to go or who to ask, because I don’t speak Korean. So it was really confusing for me,” Ortiz said.
Regardless of her lack of knowledge, she made her way to a taxi and stayed overnight at an Airbnb. The next day, Ortiz arrived at Ewha Womans University, where she completed her study abroad program.
Ortiz was able to visit Seoul, South Korea with the help of both financial aid and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship Program allows students with limited financial means to travel and study in different countries.
Submitting the essay portion of the application for the scholarship program last year was nerve wracking, but receiving a congratulatory email was an exciting moment for Ortiz.
“At first, I thought I wasn’t going to get it,” Ortiz said. “But it was really relieving for me because my parents don’t earn a lot of money. So that really helped me.”
Her general interest in Korean culture, as well as her Korean friends, helped her make the decision to spend a year in Seoul. Ortiz said her experience gave her a taste of independence.
For the first time, Ortiz moved out of her parents’ home and stayed in the dorms at Ewha Womans University, where she befriended exchange students. While in Seoul, Ortiz experienced culture shock. One of the most surprising things to her was the fact that most of the restaurants served home-cooked meals and senior citizens seemed to commonly take advantage of their age.
“Here they respect old people but over there, they really respect them, and sometimes the old people would take advantage of that,” Ortiz said. “Me and my friends sometimes would go out, and they would push you and cut the lines.”
She also found Korean culture to be far more conservative and observed that most families only had a single child. Ortiz also noticed that Seoul lacked a suburban area.
“Usually people live in apartments, not in houses like here, because there is not a lot of space to build houses, so it’s better to build up,” Ortiz said.
Although the area was far more crowded with both buildings and people, Ortiz never felt closed in. Instead, she felt a sense of freedom while she was there. During her downtime, she constantly visited new areas with a peer.
At Ewha Womans University, she met one of her best friends, Reanna Averill, a 21-year-old student from Michigan. The two spent the majority of their time together there, hopping on trains and exploring new places.
“I became very close to her as we shared a love for the country and had similar interests and opinions,” Averill said in an email. “We both have a natural curiosity for cultures outside our own and a love for the language.”
Over the course of the semester, Ortiz and Averill first set out to see tourist locations. However, the more familiar they got with the country, the more they began to branch out and explore local parts of its cities. Oftentimes, they would shop and find new places to eat.
Ortiz and Averill still keep in touch after returning home.
Although Ortiz enjoyed her trip, she did experience some challenges. Trying to communicate with people that didn’t speak English was one hardship Ortiz faced while she was in Seoul. She used body language to communicate and, even though she received extra money to take language classes, Ortiz found that Korean differed too much from English. This often made it hard to make sense of her interactions.
“(The classes) were difficult because sometimes the professors didn’t speak really good English, so it was hard to understand them,” Ortiz said.
Although Ortiz struggled with the language barrier, the trip ultimately allowed her to experience an entirely new culture, as well as gain a desire to travel and explore foreign lands.
“It helped me to not want to stay at home. I wanted to go out and explore the world,” Ortiz said.
After visiting Seoul, Ortiz hopes to travel to Japan and Hong Kong so she can experience more cultures different from the Western culture she grew up in.