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[Voice] Are international students adapting to Korea?

With the government aiming for 200,000 by 2020...

July 15, 2013 - 19:43 By Korea Herald
The number of students from abroad choosing to study in Korea has risen considerably in recent years as the country has become increasingly internationalized.

There were almost 90,000 foreign exchange students in the country in 2011, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The ministry has sought to encourage the trend, setting a target of 200,000 students in the country by 2020 as part of efforts to transform Korea into an “educational hub” of Asia.

The interest in Korea as a place to study over the last decade would seem to give the government reason to be optimistic about reaching its goal. Korea had fewer than 17,000 international students in 2004.

But the arrival of students from more than 170 different countries has presented its own challenges, from how well foreign students adapt to Korean life and are accepted, to questionable admission procedures from unscrupulous universities and issues surrounding coursework and student support.


The National Institute for International Education Development, operated under the Education Ministry, is the principal agency for the recruitment and support of international students.

Lee Byeong-yun, director of the International Student Support Team at NIIED, said that the organization provided substantial support to international students in the form of financial assistance, counseling and information about Korea.

“One of the first ways that we provide support is we give scholarships to students who also fund their own studies,” said Lee through a written statement. “They don’t have financial support when they come here but they receive either high scores or their attitude or behavior is really good and they have been recommended by people at the university as being excellent students.” Last year some 200 students received the scholarship and 400 students are receiving it this year, he noted.

But perceptions of Korean academia don’t always match the reality encountered by international students, according to Sara Rai, the manager of Korea International Student Support Association.

“International students, mostly under Korean government scholarships, who chose Korea over other nations complain that they feel duped. Before they came to Korea, they were told most of the classes related to their major would be conducted in English. Once they were here, the situation was just the opposite,” said Rai.

As a result of the language barrier, their academic performance suffers, she said.

“Even though they are required to take Korean language for a year or more, it is not good enough to understand a university level lecture on specialized topics like IT or molecular biology,” Rai said. “They do not learn or they learn very little about the subject matter.”

When problems do arise, Rai said, there may be few avenues for recourse.

“Sometimes the so-called professors lack proper teaching methods or even proper knowledge on the subject matter,” she said.

“Professors have full authority on grading. Often, when students ask for feedback on grades or a grade to be rechecked, students are often told to not question the professor. There is no higher authority to file formal complaints. Students are given very few rights and outlets to discuss grievances and wrongdoings by professors.”
Foreign exchange students of Tongmyong University in Busan eat samgyetang as part of “Global Samgyetang Day” to introduce foreigners to Korean food. (Yonhap News)


Not all challenges are academic or financial in nature. Some international students suffer general adjustment issues such as culture shock or homesickness or difficulties in changing their visa status.

Lee said that the NIIED provided information about Korea in 11 languages on its website and also offered in-person counseling in six languages. He said the organization had provided counseling to more than 10,000 students last year, both in person and through its website.

“This includes general questions about Korea, about living in Korea, about studying, applying online, every single question you can think of before coming to Korea or even living here,” said Lee.

Support doesn’t cease with the end of university life. Lee said that NIIED made efforts to help students find employment after graduation.

“We host a study in Korea fair. There is where NIIED officials go abroad to say China or Vietnam and they offer these study in Korea opportunities and they tell students about the different businesses that they can work for … and what sort of eligibility requirements they would have to fulfill.”

Universities may also have their own internal support frameworks. A counselor and psychologist at one of Seoul’s most prestigious universities said that she usually sees 2-3 foreign students a semester for varied reasons.

“It could be difficulties of cultural differences but it’s not that significant,” she said on condition of anonymity. “Sometimes they have a hard time with their partners or they come and tell me about being homesick, etc.”

She acknowledged that studying abroad presented challenges, something she knew from her own experience as an exchange student in Europe. But she encouraged international students to make the most of the opportunity, and said that Koreans generally did their best to accommodate foreigners.

“To spend a certain period studying in another country has two different sides, one exciting and with new chances, the other difficulties with language and culture,” she said.

“These difficulties were not always only negative but also could make my life very rich and interesting. Foreign students should use their new chances. I also had quite a tough time in Europe when I was studying there. But after all now I think I did my best and it was a golden period of my life. We Koreans are normally very kind and curious to foreigners.”


Stories of poor treatment of international students by staff or other students are not unheard of, however. In May, The Korea Herald reported on the emergence of an online video showing a Gyeongsang National University professor calling two Indonesian students “not human” and a “low animal.”

One Iranian exchange student at a major university who spoke to The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity claimed that he and his classmates had been repeatedly subjected to physical and verbal abuse by a professor.

“I’ve been scolded several times by (my) professor for very nonsensical reasons, both alone in his room and in front of other students. Once I fainted and collapsed due to high stress. Once he was scolding me continuously for six hours in his room,” said the master’s student, adding that eight of his fellow students had dropped out of his class because of the abuse.

“Once when I showed professor a paper from a reputable journal which was against his thought, he tore that paper (up). In such a stressful atmosphere … how can students be successful?”

The student said that he would drop out of the course if it wasn’t for the money he received that helped him support his family.

Despite the obstacles, however, Rai also acknowledged that international students bore some responsibility for adjusting to Korean life.

“I do think students do bear some responsibility,” she said. “Students need to research and study about Korea and its culture rather than just pack up and follow their fantasy based on Korean dramas and pop culture.

“It seems like the expectations they had of a highly developed, educated and open society was in vast contrast with the reality. The language barrier, food, weather and rigid Korean culture can easily isolate a lone soul whose world is his dorm room and research lab.”

By John Power (

Readers’ voice

International students...

Korea needs exchange students more than they need us. The first thing is to make a good first impression, and that means picking them up at the airport and getting them safely to the school dorm no matter the time. And when they leave? Do the very same. Some schools do that, but a lot do not.

Second, no dorm room should have only Koreans, but mix each room with exchange students so that they can come to know and understand each other as a person ― a human being.

They need to be given a chance to buy health insurance or have it provided for them. They need a map of the school with the location of the building in English along with room numbers and how to get around school.

They need a book with all the phone numbers (offices such as academic affairs, nurse), discount places they can visit with their school ID, how to get a T-Money card, a map in English of the bus and subway systems and so on. They also need to be given, as a good-will statement, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and so on because they are pretty tired and sure don’t need to start looking for these things.

Then they should be given a tour of the school with questions answered as they go. They should be taken to discount stores where they can buy blankets, pillows, clothes and shoes, and taken to the bank and given help in setting up a bank account for money transfers along with getting an ATM card.

The Chinese students have to have $10,000 in a bank account before they can come, but the problem is that all the family comes together to make up the $10,000. But when the student arrives, they pay the money back, leaving the students with no income, so they have to work in factories. If they are unable to find work, many students live on 1,300 won a day.

They need to be given jobs at the school. For example, if you have five people working in an office, there should be an exchange student in each and every office, not only to help them but to have Koreans speak English for their future.

We have about 8-14 people working in the Academic Affairs Office and only one person can speak everyday English. If he is out, what do exchange students or Western professors do if they need help? We need more exchange students working there who can speak English and Chinese. We need people who answer the phone to be able to speak English and have the manners to not hang up.

Our exchange students should be able to get on the university bulletin board in English if they want to. And all classes have to be in English, because you can’t start a student learning Korean numbers and then put them into a university class and think they will learn anything. They don’t need 6-9 p.m. for Korean classes. They came to learn new ideals, to have an adventure. Making or pushing them to learn Korean … They can’t. Learning a new language is very hard.

And you need a person to be in charge of them who has lived in other countries, knows how it feels and understands the frustrations of being away from home: family, weather and so on. There should be a meeting once a week with each exchange student, and the academic affairs office must learn that they are there to serve exchange students and Western professors, to be helpful.

― Edward F. Burkett, senior English professor, Pyeongtaek University

I am from India and I did my masters and M.Phil. at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. For my M.Phil. I selected Korean studies and got a Korean government fellowship in 1997 and came to Korea. I did my Ph.D. at the political science department of Seoul National University and left for India in 2004.

In India, from 2004 to present day I have taught Korean history and politics, and worked in Korea-related jobs at Oracle, HP-Mphasis and Samsung Electro Mechanics in Bangalore. Presently, I am working with KOTRA India and I am a team member for establishing the KOTRA office in Bangalore, my hometown.

Because I got a chance to come to Korea, study in Korea and interact with my department, I could establish the good, strong roots of Korean values which are the same in India.

I thank the National Institute for International Education Development, which looked after me so well during my stay in Korea. Now in Bangalore, we are the ambassadors for Korea to Indian IT companies.

We reciprocally help Korean companies and Indian companies because of the exchange scholarships. If they did not exist, the root of Korea would not have taken hold in my heart.

Whenever Korean professors, journalists, students and missionaries come, we help voluntarily because of the roots set down by exchange students.

So India and Korea should do more and more exchange student programs.

― T.S. Chandrashekar, Korea Trade Promotion Agency, Bangalore, India

Returning lost artifacts ...

It is well known that there are about 75,000 “lost” Korean artifacts spread around the globe. Some will never, and should not be returned to Korea, being gifts, diplomatic exchanges, legal and honest purchases, and so on. There are significant positive outcomes of foreign collections of Korean artifacts. These exhibits may be the only tool to educate non-Koreans about Korea.

The Korean government has already set up a kind of “task force” to help locate and negotiate “stolen and smuggled” artifacts.

I would suggest the return of artifacts through wills. Particularly in the United States, Japan and France, there are large private collectors who have amassed impressive Korean art collections. Some of these collectors could perhaps be approached with the option of “giving back” some of their collection to the National Museum of Korea or a different institution within Korea. The encounter would have to be cordial, respectful and a clear acknowledgement of their gift.

Recognizing their intent to return Korean artifacts should be commended and honored. There is little doubt that many of the artifacts taken from Korea during the 20th century in all likelihood would have fared much worse if left in Korea. Even more precious artifacts and heritage would have been lost. By all means threats to investigate these collectors should not be spoken; instead using their wills to return artifacts could potentially yield far better results.

I just recently read an article in which a prominent Korea collector in Japan used his will to donate all his collection to the National Museum of Japan. I wonder, did a Korean official ever approach this man about such a donation to Korea? I suspect not.

― Kyle Magnuson, Los Angeles, United States