My experience as an exchange student: Perks of studying at a rural university in South Korea

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Author: Nathalia Millán Rincón

When South Korea is mentioned, most people are immediately transported to the big cities, imagining the skyscrapers, tourist places, and nightlife. This is common, as we want to experience it all when visiting a new place. However, that idea is precisely the reason why many leave small cities aside, believing that ‘there is nothing to see or do’, especially when it comes to an academic exchange, where we seek to create pleasant memories to which we can return in the future. For the above, I have written this blog to compile the points that made my exchange an unforgettable event. After all, I studied at a rural university, and I want to tell you why my experience was no less wonderful, quite the opposite, it was really worth it.

To begin with, I must clarify that not a single day passes without me thinking about my International Academic Semester. I went to Soonchunhyang University (순천향 대학교) as an exchange student for the fall semester of 2021. Also known as SCH, it is a university located in the city of Asan, and to get there, you have to take Line 1 of the train to its last stop at Sinchang station (신창(순천향대)역); sounds quite remote, right? In fact, many readers may think that going to another country to study ‘in the middle of nowhere’ is not worth it, but I would like to prove otherwise, because the advantages exceeded my expectations. For this, I have made a list divided into the categories that I consider were the most influential to be able to say that I enjoyed the exchange, and I have also taken this opportunity to give you some recommendations. So here we go:

Illustration 1. Made by Millán, N with own pictures (2023). [Collage]

The campus

  • University town. SCH, as such, is further away from the city itself. The flow of people is low during summer and winter holidays, but everything changes as soon as classes begin. When I talk about a university town, I mean that the community is predominated by university students, who bring life to the quiet sector. And why is this a good thing? Because when you are an exchange student, you want to meet new people and make many friends, and in my case, I had the advantage of always being surrounded by people of my age who were looking for the same thing as me: to learn and have a good time.
  • The area. Noise pollution is a very real issue, and that is why there is nothing better than starting your day with a quiet morning. Being a rural area, what is most abundant is nature, and Soonchunhyang University (순천향 대학교) is surrounded by trees, mountains, and even a lake. Studying in this environment will never be overwhelming. In fact, calmness was, on several occasions, my best support during exams season. Slow living (keep an eye on my next blog, where I will be talking about this) is the term I would use to describe the lifestyle that accompanied me to fulfill my responsibilities as a student, one that I was able to implement thanks to the environment in which I was.
Illustration 2. Made by Millán, N with own pictures (2023). [The campus]

The people

Undoubtedly, people are an extremely important factor, as you will be interacting with other individuals outside your social circle. Many of us rate an experience as good or bad depending on how welcomed we felt, and the people who were part of my daily life while I was studying there took great care of me. From the staff at the university’s  Center for Global Education & Exchange, who gave their best so that we could have a good academic exchange despite Covid-19, and even invited us to spend a night playing Ddakji (딱지) and other traditional Korean games; the Lady of Grazie (그라찌에커피), with whom I chatted, despite my extremely basic Korean, at the café I went to start my day; even the grandmothers of that restaurant, whose name I never learned, but I knew how to get there, and they always greeted me with a smile at lunchtime, and gave me candy before I left. All of them are some of the people to whom I attribute part of the success of my semester abroad, because despite the fact that everyone had to do their job, this was never a limitation to show genuine interest for the exchange students. The stereotype that people from small towns are very kind exists for a reason.

Illustration 3. Made by Millán, N with own pictures (2023). [The people]

The food

Something delicious, affordable, and of good quality matters. This is a topic that has to be addressed, as I consider that food is a key component that is directly proportional to the experience, because, can you really say that you visited that place if you did not try the food? It is even more important that what you are eating is healthy, and one thing I noticed when I was there was that many students tend to pick quick and processed meals that can be found in convenience stores, since it is cheap and it does not taste bad. However, I soon realized that there is nothing better than food made with fresh ingredients (and they were fresh, as the crop fields were part of the landscape), and that does not leave your pockets empty. In this aspect, the city of Asan and SCH never let me down, because I could always find something that met the criteria of the three “B’s”: good, pretty, and cheap (stands for bueno, bonito y barato in Colombia), from the cafeteria options to the restaurants outside the university. I cannot stress this enough, but stop spending money on fast food chains and go to a local restaurant instead!

Illustration 4. Made by Millán, N with own pictures (2023). [The food]

Tourism and leisure time

  • Transportation. Studying at a rural university does not prevent you from getting to know other places. It is a fact that South Korea has one of the best public transport systems in the world (Seoul Tourism Organization, n.d.), and that is why mobilizing within the same city, or from city to city, was the least of my concerns. Asan was no exception, and contrary to the beliefs that rural areas do not have many transport connections, it was well equipped with buses, taxis, and a train station less than 10 minutes from the university. To illustrate this, Seoul was only 2 hours away by train from Sinchang station (신창(순천향대)역), and to go to Busan, I only had to transfer to Cheonan station (천안역) from the same Line 1. In short, thanks to the efficient public transportation system of the country, you do not have to give up tourism in big cities.
  • Nearby cities. If you want to have a good time and go out with your friends, but do not want to travel for more than an hour by train, the nearby cities are the best option. With many places to visit, the city of Cheonan, just 20 minutes away by train from SCH, is full of things to see and do. You will find everything in this city: temples, restaurants, markets, shops, bars, and even dog cafés. Have you ever seen that ride in the form of a circle that spins while people try not to let go merely by grabbing the railing? Its name is disco pang pang, and you can also find it there. With so many places to visit, this city was the perfect escape from the calm Asan, but without going to Seoul. For the above, I recommend visiting Gakwonsa Temple, Arario Gallery, and just walking around Mannam-ro and Meokgeori, because the most interesting places are often not on Maps.
  • Cafés. As a good Colombian coffee lover and fan of learning and trying new things, café hopping became my favorite hobby. Something that I quickly incorporated into my routine was studying in cafés, as these provided the perfect environment to focus while enjoying snacks and a drink. While in South Korea, I noticed that one of the biggest advantages of studying at a rural university, and this is purely a personal opinion, is that the cafés are beautiful, which is perfect, since they were one of the places where I spent the most time with my friends. Among the ones I frequented the most are Cafe Family, GOGOSS COFFEE (고고스 커피), Cafe Seoul (카페서울), and Cafe Aroute (카페에이루트), but if you are willing to go a little farther, I recommend Route 102 (루트102) and ANNAC (안낙). What should be highlighted is that all these have a WiFi zone, an incredible menu with low prices, and are simply very well set for both families and students. Some cafés are even open until 11 p.m. when it is exam season.
Illustration 5. Made by Millán, N with own pictures (2023). [Tourism and leisure time]

In short, there is much more to see besides the large and recognized cities of South Korea when visiting the country. From my perspective, having studied at a rural university showed me that the farther away you are, the more you explore, and that good memories are made up of good people, good times, and a good attitude to see the positive in everything. This academic exchange brought with it experiences that I will treasure for a long time, and I hope that after reading this blog you have been motivated to give a chance to what those small, not very well-known cities, have to offer. 

Written by: Nathalia Millán Rincón

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero

References: 

Seoul Tourism Organization. (n.d.). Transportation. VISIT SEOUL NET. https://english.visitseoul.net/transportation#:~:text=Consistently%20voted%20as%20one%20of,5%3A30%20am%20until%20midnight

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