Here’s Why I Made My First F in College While Studying Abroad in South Korea

My College Experience In Summary

Throughout my time in college I have to say I was mainly a B/B- student because I seemed to forget that I was, in fact, a student. Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty ambitious, but perhaps a bit misdirected as I both tried to figure out what I was doing with my life and struggled with personal finances. This was partially brought on by the fact that financial obligations to my family and less than frugal spending often put me in a difficult spot requiring odd jobs for spending money. As such, I think the best word to sum up my college experience is “distracted.”

Then I went to Seoul…

So when I studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea during my junior year, my experience wasn’t much different. In fact, forgetting that I was a student was even more true while studying abroad in the country I came to love so much and fantasized about. I mean, I actually wanted to live in Seoul and join the growing number of expats who call it home. I had the crazy dream of being the first foreigner to pass the Korean bar exam. Yes, I was dreaming of shoes bigger than I could fill.

When I came to Seoul and suddenly had a stipend, I felt like I could buy more than I really could afford. I wanted to look cute like all the Korean girls with their short skirts, feminine blouses, pretty bows, and accessories. I wanted clothing and items that looked good, so I ended up spending too much too soon. I didn’t budget my money wisely and ate out a bit too much to be able to sustain myself long-term.

The thing is, I felt that it was necessary to feel less American, less clumsy, less unattractive to people with whom I wanted to blend in with. The irony was that while knowing that I could never not stick out in such a homogeneous society, I hoped that my language ability and assimilation would make me at least blend in a little more and appear more desirable. After all, even most of my Korean friends would agree that people in Seoul can be quite vain and judgmental. Appearance is everything, even to the point of requiring job applicants to attach a picture to their applications before they are considered for a position. Socializing over coffee and food is also big. If I wanted to hang out and maintain a good reputation with groups of potential friends, it meant being able to afford rounds of meals, desserts, and drinks.

I was running out of money

Well this spree of spending soon led to the stark reality that I had to borrow money from friends and take on some kind of part-time job. The irony of this is that at the onset of preparing for my studies abroad, I opted to forego staying at a dormitory at Yonsei University’s Underwood International School (UIC) to save money.

I aimed to save $2,000 or so by staying at a goshiwon (고시원) in Sinchon instead. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a goshiwon, it’s a tiny room with a desk, chair, bed, cupboard, and small refrigerator which is often used by students who are studying for grueling exams, such as the civil service exams. A small communal kitchen generally offers rice, kimchi, and eggs while tenants also share a laundry machine and communal bathroom. Some rooms can be bigger than others and may even include a closed off shower and toilet in the room, but the general understanding is that they are meant to be temporary housing for those who are traveling or focused on a fixed amount of study time. At ₩200,000 a month, I was able to afford it, but I paid a bigger price of sanity by staying in one.

By staying in a tiny room, alone, I isolated myself from many possible friendships I could’ve forged at the very university I was studying at. However, I also approached my time in Korea with a resoluteness to avoid foreigners as much as possible so I could really immerse myself in Korean alone and not have to rely on more familiar languages. (After all, I didn’t come all the way to South Korea to hear English.)

I isolated myself

The physical isolation coupled with my stubborn reverse discrimination of sorts meant that I had a smaller support group and essentially felt like I was on my own. At first it felt like a great freedom, as if I was independently living with a determined sense of focus. Of course being able to consume in a material sense added to this phenomenon.

However, the sense of empowerment didn’t last for too long. Soon I had to take on a part-time job and I had to look no further than next door, where students and professionals alike would unwind at day’s end and have their fill of booze and bar-like food to the sounds of rowdy nightlfe outside. Lo and behold, next to my goshiwon, Pine Hill House (파인할 하우스) was a bar-type restaurant called Doraon Kim Sat Gat (돌아온 김삿갓).

And So I Began Working at a Korean Pub

While the food there was incredibly delicious and I found myself feeling like part of a family with the staff working there, the work was hella tiring. After school or sometimes after teaching English at a private hagwon near Gangnam, I’d rush back for an evening shift in Sinchon. Helping prepare side dishes, peeling potatoes, taking orders, filling pots of makgeoli, bringing dishes out to the table, bringing more bottles of “hureshi” and “chamisul” soju, clearing tables, mopping floors – I was always on my feet and my shift was usually 4-10pm, 5-11, or 5-midnight. Luckily this was moreso the case on Thursdays to Sundays, but I came to never have a day off between my two jobs.

Exhausted, Stressed, and Overwhelmed

I ran myself into the ground and not only that, if you ask my parents or friends who I talked to at the time, whether in Korea or back home, I was always working and always sick.

And my grades suffered for it.

Here are my grades the spring and summer before I studied abroad (I withdrew from PoliSci Methods so I could take it later and focus more on two writing-heavy classes).

Emory Spring 2013 Grades

B-, B, B+, W, S (satisfactory)

Emory Summer 2013 Grades

B, B

And here are my grades the fall and spring semester of studying abroad. I was working both jobs that 2nd semester, didn’t have money for a plane ticket back to the U.S. and was at rock bottom after leaving a church I had relied on for a sense of community. (They weren’t able to support me after I supported them and our ideology ended up conflicting.) In short, I was under extreme stress and my grades reflect that.

Fall 2014 Grades

B, B, B+, C+, B

Spring 2014 Grades

C+, F, C+, D

Suffice it to say my 2nd semester in Korea was the lowest point in my life (rivaled only by the exhausted state I was in after graduating from college and trying to get off the ground in Boston with next to nothing.)

When I returned to my last semester at Emory recharged after a restful summer, I was determined to get my GPA back up and make nothing less than a B. While I didn’t meet my goal of all B’s, I came pretty darn close and not a C in sight! My last semester of college was by far the most grueling and stressful, but it was also my best full semester grade-wise.

Fall 2014 grades

B, A-, B-, B, B-, B-, A

The reason? I came back armed with the mantra, “I am a student and my purpose here is to study.” I took on no part-time work outside of my classes, I managed my stipend better, and I took the time to socialize appropriately, without neglecting my studies.

While it’s unfortunate that it took a year abroad for me to learn that lesson, the experience was totally worth it since it taught me just how strong I could be. It taught me just how much I could bear and prepared me for the first rough months post-college, while getting on my feet in Boston.

And now? Well now I’m doing pretty alright 🙂

Read my list of Do’s and Don’ts of Studying Abroad in Seoul for more in my next post!

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Dennis O'Cleary

That’s really impressive to bounce back after a bad semester of grades. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish college on a strong note.