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It’s been about a week since I’ve returned home from South Korea, and I have reflected a lot on my experience this summer. This whole adventure into a new country has given me so much value and guidance in personal development.

On this trip, I learned about myself as a leader, made friends with an amazing group of people, gained new perspectives on global issues, and benefited from not knowing how to speak a common language. However, I feel that I can affirmatively say that I have also provided a modest amount to the communities that I served this summer. From communicating without a common language to exciting students to learn English through games, I believe that I have touched many communities during my trip this summer that I wouldn’t have even been close to had I stayed back home and worked in a lab.

From start to finish, this whole program has provided me with an amazing experience that will forever change how I view service learning programs. Starting with the Institute for Reunification, I was able to learn about the South Korean government’s perspective on the reunification issue with North Korea. Although the entire program was a bit biased, it was interesting to see how domestic perspectives on the issue stack up against what I see every day in the media and learn in classes.

Our trip then took us to Jiguchon School, a multicultural elementary school where we taught English. My entire time at Jiguchon was built on fostering relationships with the students and encouraging them to continue their studies. These students had not come from the greatest backgrounds and many seemed unmotivated or didn’t see the value in learning. During my time at the school, I worked on showing love and attention to the students and showing them that learning isn’t a boring and useless activity, but rather something to find fun and engaging. However, in the end, I sincerely believe that the school taught me more than I was able to teach them. Primarily, I learned that communication transcends barriers such as language. Although some of the students didn’t speak any similar languages to me, I was still able to have an amazing time and communicate the ideas that I wanted to.

Next, we went to Oorideul School, an academy for North Korean refugees where I also taught English. My situation at the school was a bit different, since the students I taught had proficient levels of English, so communication was much easier. At the school, I focused on asserting myself as a friend that the students could easily connect with. Rather than establishing student-teacher relationships, I wanted to make sure that the students were comfortable viewing me as a peer. At this school, I learned about the power of stigma and how it affected my perception of my students. Although I eventually realized that these people were just like the ordinary people I have been interacting with my whole life, the title of ‘North Korean’ swayed how I treated and saw these students in the beginning. Luckily, I acknowledged the fallacy in my thinking quickly and had an amazing time at the school through mutual learning. While I helped the students with their speaking, they helped me better understand the humans that are behind the issues that I read about every day.

Lastly, the trip took us to Busan, the southern region of South Korea that has a rich (but not beautiful) history. The city was once one of the largest ports in the world, and as a result, the area was sprawling with multiculturalism. On one street, a China Town, Russia Town, and Texas Street all coexisted. However, Busan’s history is a bit dark, since it is the port in which the Japanese military used to colonize Korea and transport comfort women. During this part of the trip, I spent a lot of time considering how an area or country becomes ‘multicultural’. While I would walk on the streets, it would be normal to see people of different physical appearances communicate easily, a sight that is not often found in the city of Seoul. I began to think about how South Korea is experiencing a multicultural boom, and how South Korea may eventually look just like America, but on a smaller scale.

My trip to South Korea wasn’t the easiest journey, but it is definitely the most memorable one I have taken in my life. I interacted with people from entirely different backgrounds from me, and I learned how to simply understand differences. At the end of the day, the human you are talking to has something similar to you, and you will be surely rewarded for finding out that similarity.