Why Seoul? This is a question Cedrik Hennigs has been asked quite a lot, and not only in the context of this interview. His peers also wanted to know why the student of media and communication studies, originally from Munich, decided to go so far away for his semester abroad. Here, he shares his experiences of living and studying in South Korea and tells us why it’s good to immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture.
How are you?
I’m very well! The partner university is taking great care of me. I made friends really quickly and there are also two other AAU students here with me.
What is it like to study in South Korea?
It’s hard to express in just a few words. Here, and probably in Asia in general, the culture is completely different, it’s a whole different world than in Europe. As a result, studying is also different here. Admittedly, the instruction is in English and that keeps the language barriers low. However, the entire system, for example when it comes to awarding grades or points, is unfamiliar and also seems much stricter. In fact, the performance level is not the same here. I think this is also related to the prevailing culture with its strong focus on achievement and high educational attainment.
Do your courses take place on or off campus?
Everything is online at the moment. That was the announced plan from the start, but it has now been confirmed that everything will remain online until the end of the semester.
Have you ever visited the campus?
I haven’t been to any lecture halls or anything like that, but yes, I even live on campus. The hall of residence is located here. Although, here you have to take a rather broader view of the term “campus”. It’s huge, practically a district in its own right. There are various restaurants, banks, stationery shops and other facilities. One distinctive feature is that there are only two ways to get in or out: the front gate and the back gate.
Then perhaps we can ask a counter-question – have you ever been off-campus?
Yes, of course, because the one thing you won’t find here on campus is a bar. But even just to go sightseeing in Seoul or to visit other restaurants or venues, I leave the campus most days.
How are your Korean language skills coming along?
The university offers language courses at different levels, but as far as the university courses are concerned, everything here is taught in English. Speaking the local language is an advantage, however, because not all Koreans understand English. In everyday life, simple phrases such as please, thank you, hello and goodbye are very useful. But you tend to pick those up automatically once you’ve spent a few weeks here.
Do you get to meet a lot of people? How do you network?
Due to the online teaching, getting to know the other students obviously isn’t as easy or natural as it would be otherwise. But there are approximately 150 international students here and many are amenable to doing things together. Most of them live in the halls of residence here on campus, so you tend to run into each other. Plus, the student bars are always a good meeting place. So, there are plenty of opportunities to meet people after all.
So the bars are open?
Yes, cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs are open at the moment. But only from 05:00-22:00. It means you might have to go to a club during the day, if you want to go to a club. Of course, there are rules. For instance, no more than four people are allowed at the table and you can only remove your mask while you’re sitting down.
Why did you decide to spend a semester abroad despite Corona?
I applied for the semester abroad before the pandemic started. When I was about to start the semester I had originally planned, COVID-19 was just getting serious in our country and I was lucky enough to be able to delay my semester abroad by one year. Of course, even then, it wasn’t an easy decision for me to make. But in the end I was lucky, because the situation is better here in South Korea – the incidence rates are lower. I knew that it would be more limited than a ‘normal’ semester abroad, but I still didn’t want to miss this unique opportunity. Who knows if I’ll ever have an opportunity like this again.
How did your friends and family react?
They gave me their full support. Most of them are happy for me and are always eager to find out what’s going on. Corona was less of an issue. But people did often ask me why I chose Seoul.
And what was your reason?
I wanted to travel to a continent that was unknown to me, gather new experiences and immerse myself in a new culture. Asia was a perfect place for this. The University of Klagenfurt cooperates with various universities here, and in the end I chose Korea because it’s totally new to me and I was excited about gaining new experiences here.
Did you have a specific idea of what studying here would be like?
I did not have any specific ideas. But of course I did a bit of research in the run-up. You can find opinions and impressions of former students and information about the university itself. I had no notion of the dimensions of the campus or the buildings here. I pictured campus life as something similar to what you see in American movies, and I have to say, it’s a lot like that. There are clubs or sports teams you always see training here and lots of cafés full of students. As far as I can tell, as far as studying goes, the general trend is less group work and more individual learning and self-study. This is probably also a matter of personal preference.
What’s your living situation like in South Korea?
I live in a student hall of residence. Due to Corona, I am using what is actually a double room as a single room. Normally I would have been assigned a roommate, as privacy is arguably less important here. It’s a different way of life, but a good one.
What else was new for you?
I was very surprised to find that shopping is very expensive here. Basic foodstuffs are often so expensive that people simply eat out more often or have food delivered instead. Street food culture is also very important here. You can find tasty treats at every street corner. The food is definitely quite unlike European food. Less fruit and vegetables, lots of sugar and fat. You will find many animal products and a lot of food is deep-fried. On the other hand, when it comes to drinking, the choices are healthier. There is a jug of water served with every meal and you will find water dispensers everywhere. The national drink is soju, a liquor that is quite mild by European standards.
What do you do when you’re not at university?
What’s great here is that many museums or typical sightseeing spots like palaces or tours are free of charge. It is cheaper to enjoy cultural activities here than it is in Europe. Besides, you can reach everything by public transport. South Korea has a well-developed underground and bus network.
What else do you want to do while you’re in Seoul?
I’ve got lots of plans. I definitely want to visit a temple. There are many temples and palaces left over from earlier times when Korea was still a kingdom. Now you can spend a weekend living in these compounds in the company of Buddhist monks. You can learn to meditate with the monks, perform tea ceremonies and catch a glimpse of their lives.
Why should students spend a semester abroad and would you recommend it to others?
Absolutely! Where to start? You can really benefit personally, I noticed that in my first few weeks here. You constantly find yourself in new situations, mundane activities like shopping or going to the hairdresser turn into an adventure, there are language and cultural barriers and you are in a new, unfamiliar world. I’d also recommend it at the university level. You get to improve your language skills and gain an insight into other teaching approaches and methods. If you get the chance, you should definitely take advantage of it.