Coming to Korea as an international student is, indeed, a wonderful experience. With nearly 70% of the eligible youth in the country enrolled in universities, it is not difficult to imagine that student life plays an important role in shaping people’s future in Korea. That is why, admission to university and higher education in general is quite competitive here. Although this can be stressful at times, studying in Korea is truly an amazing opportunity for foreigners to become familiar with Korean lifestyle while receiving excellent academic training at the same time. There are numerous activities to try around the country but inevitably some of the most exciting adventures you will have as a foreign student in Korea, are bound to happen on campus. In this article, we have listed typical challenges that foreign students encounter when attending university in Korea, as well as tricks that make student life less of a struggle.
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Attending university is a vital step in one’s life and Korean faculty understands that. To prepare students for all the upcoming changes that occur post-enrollment, most universities organize orientation events where staff members provide detailed information about campus-related affairs. In some cases, those OTs are held separately for foreign and domestic students because of certain differences in the language and agenda. Attending orientation is not always compulsory but we strongly recommend you not to skip it. Since all living conditions of foreigners who come to Korea to study are largely affected by their newly-acquired student status, OT is the time to learn how to use the school library, open a bank account, apply for insurance, issue an alien registration card, request a medical check-up, and numerous other essentials for your future life in Korea. Even if you are an expat who has spent some time in the country and is familiar with all the aforementioned procedures, it is still advised to attend OT because many universities cooperate with certain institutions and businesses, so you can learn a lot about student discounts in the area.
In addition, the situation of those who apply for the Korean Government Scholarship Program is slightly different when it comes to orientation. For such grants, attending OT is absolutely mandatory and being absent might result in termination of your program. Also, the OT that KGSP students are required to attend is organized by NIIED and takes place in one of their centers rather than any university. Of course, that does not mean that you cannot attend the OT organized by your school additionally and we recommend you do both because, besides a great source of information, those events are also one of the best ways to meet new people and make friends.
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Living in a dormitory is the preferred accommodation option for most international students in Korea, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, dormitories are located on campus or in a close proximity to it, which makes commuting to classes a lot easier than having to deal with public transportation. Secondly, the price of renting an apartment in Korea is quite costly in comparison to the average dormitory fee. Considering the cost of living for a foreign student in Seoul, one of the big problems of staying in an apartment is not so much the monthly rent but the deposit fee required to sign a lease contract, which is a huge financial burden that most international students can hardly afford. Lastly, certain dormitories offer conjugal rooms for married couples, so if you are a foreign student who intends on living in Korea with their spouse, make sure to confirm if such options exist in your university.
Having said that, living in a dormitory seems quite reasonable but there are a few things foregn students need to consider before taking that step. For example, this type of accommodation is usually shared with two to four roommates, so if personal space is important to you, this might inconvenience you in many ways. Other facilities in the dormitory area, such as kitchens and laundry rooms, are also designed for communal use. In addition to having to live with others, it is not uncommon to not be fully able to communicate with them due to a language barrier. Besides that, many dormitories have strict rules regarding inviting visitors, drinking and smoking on site, as well as curfews, the failure to comply might affect your grade or general student status.
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In terms of ties on campus, there are plenty of surprising things about Korean university culture that await foreign students in Korea. Since the majority of them affect undergraduate students the most, if you want to attend graduate school, you will surely have more freedom when it comes to maintaining social status in university. The reason for that is the hierarchical structure of the Korean society which applies to educational institutions as well. Therefore, in contrast to many Western countries where going to university and living on your own is considered the prime of independence in one’s life, in Korea, students and, especially, those in bachelor courses, are still somewhat treated as children. Along with other things to know before coming to Korea as a foreign student, it is a good idea to research senior-junior relationships, or seonnbae-hubae (선배-후배) in Korean. In short, those students who have been enrolled in the same university or the same major longer than you, are your seniors. On the other hand, anyone who joins the department after you, is considered your junior. This type of relationship is one of the most important when living in Korea and it can be found not only in schools but also in most workplaces.
Although foreigners are usually not expected to strictly follow all the formalities when communicating with other school members, showing respect and trying to fit into the local culture is always viewed positively by Koreans. Not to mention, networking is essential in all aspects of life in Korea, so being on the good side of your seniors might actually benefit you in various ways. For example, seniors can help with assignments, recommend classes, and even treat you to an occasional meal. Besides that, maintaining a friendly relationship with your peers should also not be underestimated. Community spirit and being a people person is highly valued in Korea and that is why teamwork is crucial for your survival in university. Team projects are quite common and group performance is taken seriously into account, so the inability to fit in might have a negative impact on your grade. If you don’t think of yourself as a social butterfly, don’t worry: bonding events such as field trips, membership training (MT), and clubs of interest (dongari) are organized on a regular basis, so finding friends on campus is almost guaranteed!
As mentioned above, many factors can impact your grades when attending Korean university, even though some of them might not even be directly related to the academic process. In Korea, people are often identified with their social or professional status and, that is why, when being a student here, many will often assume that your sole purpose is studying. That being said, the amount of study load you are expected to deal with should not surprise you. As a matter of fact, there are two periods during the semester -- the midterm and finals weeks -- when students sacrifice not only their free time but also their sleeping schedule to score good results. Besides exam preparation, there are plenty of other assignments such as presentations, reports and actual homework, so for many foreigners the study approach in Korean universities might feel similar to that in high school. Attendance is also a must for most classes and absence without presenting a valid reason to the professor in advance is frowned upon to the point where your grade might suffer the consequences.
To add to the comotion, competition is rampant when it comes to any sort of education in Korea. So, another thing that you should be mentally prepared for is the grading system. While it is rarely seen in graduate schools, many classes in bachelor courses are based on relative grading. Since most countries use absolute grading, this system is one of the things that comes as an absolute shock to foreign students in Korea, so it is important this be explained in detail. Absolute grading allows every student to be evaluated based entirely on their individual performance, which means that there is a realistic chance that all students receive a maximum grade if they fit the criteria of the class. However, relative grading does not allow that since each student’s grade is formed by comparing their result with the rest of the class. Therefore, only a certain number of students can receive a maximum grade and all others are ranked in relation to that highest score. We strongly recommend you pay attention to the grading method when applying for classes, especially if you are a scholarship student.