This is crazy, isn’t it? For seven months, my group has been the newbies, the inexperienced ones. We’ve been the ones asking last year’s group for advice at every step of the way and then frantically texting them things go wrong anyway. And now here we are, with one full day left in Korea, and we’re the next crop of soon-to-be alums of DukeEngage South Korea (DESK – you’ll get used to the acronym). But instead of thinking about how my experience in South Korea is almost over, I want to think about the future – and that’s where you come in.
When you find out that you got into DukeEngage, you’re going to be so excited. Maybe, like some of us, you had been meticulously planning for months and even called your parents for feedback on your application essays (okay, maybe that was just me). Maybe you applied on a whim the night before the application was due. Either way, I bet you’ll be pumped, and you should be! You have an amazing experience ahead of you. I’m sure you’re also just a little nervous, and I bet you have a ton of questions. I know I did – and now I have some answers. So without further ado, here it is: The Handy Dandy Little Guide to DukeEngage South Korea (THDLGDESK?).
Q: How’s the food?
A: It’s good. It may be different than what you’re used to, but Seoul has all different kinds of food, so don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone! You may not be ready for the live eel, but I bet a bowl of samgyetang or kongguksu will be right up your alley. Personally, I recommend stopping by a bakery for a nice pastry on your way to the subway station in the morning.
Q: And Seoul? Is it really all it’s cracked up to be?
A: That and more. If you’re into history, there are ancient palaces, temples, and even a whole preserved village to check out. If shopping is your thing, there are shopping malls and markets pretty much everywhere, from the glittering, trendy Coex mall to the artsy Insadong shopping district. Your main purpose for being in Seoul is service, but don’t feel bad about using the weekends to see all that the city has to offer! A large aspect of DukeEngage is cultural immersion and exchange, and you won’t get that by staying inside the guesthouse when you’re not preparing for class.
Q: Oh, shoot… class. How do I go about lesson planning? How do I even teach? I’m so unprepared.
A: Don’t worry, we were, too. You will have some training and discussion during your pre-departure class, but I can say from experience that as soon as you first step into the classroom, 90% of that will go out the window. You’ll probably mess up a few times, and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid of failure. When it comes to this, my main advice is to listen – listen to your group members and professors, listen to your students, and listen to yourself. When something is working, you’ll know, and it’ll be an absolutely great feeling.
Q: What about my group members? Why weren’t they cc’ed on the acceptance email? Who are they?
A: Sorry, can’t give an exact answer to this one, and you won’t know their names for like a month (and trust me, we’ll be as curious about them as you are). All I can tell you is this: they will be passionate, curious, and intelligent – just like you are! Like you, they bring so much value to the program. Don’t be afraid to disagree with them sometimes, but do so with respect for their opinions and insights. Listen to them, respect them, and learn their strategies in various card games. It’ll be useful. Trust me.
Q: Okay… so what about the students? What will they be like?
A: Energetic. Crazy. Annoying. Sweet. Vulnerable. Thoughtful. Absolutely perfect. Standing in front of a classroom of twenty kids might be one the scariest experiences of your life, but it will also be one of the most rewarding. Approach them with an open mind, and know what an opportunity it is for both you and them to get to know each other. Language barriers can definitely be hard, but don’t be afraid to speak to them in your broken Korean or Chinese or whatever language you might speak. Kids are actually very patient in that regard, and they really just want to get to know you!
… and I’m sure you have a thousand more questions. But for all the things I should have known before I left for South Korea, here is some of my advice:
- I said it earlier in the post, and I’ll say it again: listen, listen, listen. You may see or hear things you don’t agree with, either from your group members or your community partners, but at the very least, just hear them out. Don’t always assume that you know the most about a given situation.
- At the same time, if you have an opinion about something, don’t be afraid to speak up! DukeEngage is the perfect opportunity to start the kinds of conversations that can make you a more informed and understanding global citizen. Even (especially) if your opinion is “controversial,” talk to your group members and professors about it! It’s a great chance to start thinking about the larger issues that surround your service work.
- Speaking of which, always be cognizant of those larger issues. They’re the whole reason why you’ll be in South Korea – but more on that in a bit.
- Get an ice cream croquette from the place around the corner from your guest house. You can thank me later.
- If two girls come up to you on the street to ask you for directions, feign surprise when you tell them you’re a foreigner, and then try to rope you into a “traditional ceremony” where you get to wear hanbok, don’t listen to them. In the words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!”
- Go to a noraebang with your whole group. Sing your heart out. We recommend “Mr. Brightside.”
- Take your time with your teaching preparations, but get ready to improvise anyway.
- Bring bug spray.
- Love your students, love your group members, and love yourself.
- Don’t try to fix everything. That’s not your job.
- Cherish every single day, even when you’re tired or frustrated or just plain homesick, because you’ll have 58 of them ahead of you, and then suddenly you’ll only have one.
… but that’s the thing, isn’t it? Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing this summer, I told them it was an “eight week service program in South Korea,” but it’s so much more than that. I may have one day left in South Korea, but I have years left of continuing to strive to understand these issues and the people who they affect. Your DukeEngage experience is going to take the problems that you learned about in your textbooks and make them real and personal. If you ignore everything else I wrote in this letter, just remember this: it’s not just eight weeks. I can’t tell you what you’re going to do with the things you learn and the experiences you have during DukeEngage. I can’t even tell you what I’m going to do with them. All I know is that it’s not over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning.
This letter is already way too long, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But this isn’t something that can be described in 10 words or 10,000 words. It’s just something you’ve got to experience yourself – and DESK16 is pretty jealous of you in that you are about to do just that.