Junior Sophia Stayer details the immersive trip she took to South Korea this summer.
By Ayah Elsheikh, ’20
Living in a large country like the United States, the opportunity to travel abroad can be rare. When junior Sophia “Phia” Stayer was presented with the opportunity to journey across the globe, she took it.
Stayer spent 6 weeks of her summer in South Korea, where she participated in an immersive program through the U.S. Department of State (DOS). She, along with 17 other students, lived with a host family and attended classes taught entirely in Korean, learning about the people, language and culture of the country.
.A prospective journey
Stayer stumbled upon this opportunity through a family friend whose son had gone to Russia with the DOS program. Stayer had spent two years learning Korean out of interest. She took on the language after realizing it was already in her life through her friends native cultures and the music she enjoyed.
“I just decided to start learning it,” Stayer said, “and then I just kept going because I was like, ‘I can’t give up now!’”
Having adequate experience with the language, Stayer pursued the DOS program to strengthen her knowledge. She applied and was eventually accepted.
In South Korea, six hours per day were dedicated to school.
“It’s a pretty intense program,” Stayer said. “You are doing an entire college textbook of the language over about five weeks.”
Although coursework was rigorous, Stayer was able to explore after school. There were both scheduled programs, such as sports games and concerts, and free days for the students to adventure freely.
“Every Monday we had dance class,” Stayer said with a laugh. “It was awful.”
A change in scenery
In her free time, Stayer learned about the true nature of South Korea. She described how, because South Korea is so far away, the mental picture she had of the country was far different from what she observed in her experience. The fantasy image she had in her head was far from the reality.
“It was just … a real place. And it sounds bad that I didn’t expect that, but there was just so much intricacy to it that I would have never understood if I hadn’t gone,” Stayer said.
After spending six weeks with the same group of students in the program, Stayer developed a strong companionship with her peers.
“They’re all wonderful people picked from all over the U.S. for this. The [friendships] I was able to make with those people that I would have never met either way makes the program,” Stayer said.
Despite involving a foreign country, Stayer began to reflect on how this experience was tied to her identity as an American.
“When you go [abroad] … and you’re obviously not a Korean, it kind of gives you a sense of identity, and you’re like, ‘What do I want to embody as that? What part of America do I take with me?’”
Stayer feels more aware after having seen another perspective of life.
“It feels good to have a more complete picture of my brothers and sisters that are mankind,” she said.
In addition to observing others in a new environment, Stayer saw herself from a new lense and questioned her own cultural image.
“Who am I without my culture? What do I do when I don’t have any rules guiding me?,” she said.
Advice for the future
For those who have not had the opportunity to travel abroad, Stayer recommends they make an effort to learn about the world around them. Some of her suggestions include consuming media from other cultures, going to new restaurants or locations and reading global news.
Additionally, she emphasized the importance of
“reach[ing] out to people who are ideologically or culturally different” from oneself; a lesson she’s heard countless times from others.
Stayer’s last word of advice to other students was simple:
“In college, study abroad.”