Summer of Discovery: A Study-Abroad Experience Can Change Your Life

By Jeff Nazzaro

Thanks to a Seung Family Scholarship through UCR University Extension, Issac Donhyun Lim was able to spend four exciting and fulfilling weeks in the summer of 2019 participating in the Sogang University International Summer Program in Seoul, South Korea. "Sogang University has been a UCR University Extension academic partner since 2013,” explains Cynthia Welle, Director of Strategic Partnerships. Through the Seung Family Scholarship, we are proud to support exceptional UCR student ambassadors, like Issac, to undertake short-term and long-term study abroad opportunities at our global partner universities.”

“To see where my parents were from was definitely an enriching experience.”

Two guys in a clothing shop taking a selfie The cultural and academic journey helped Issac fulfill his lifelong ambition to visit the country in which his parents were born, all while working towards his UCR degree, strengthening his Korean-language ability, and enhancing his connection to what he calls his motherland country. “I was very fortunate to be a recipient of the Kathy Seung Scholarship, which funded my ability to go, so I was very grateful to the donors,” Issac said. “It was a very memorable experience. I knew all about Korean culture; however, being able to actually see where my parents were from and where it all began, and seeing my culture be the norm in society, was definitely an enriching experience.”

One of the biggest celebrations in Korean culture, second perhaps only to one’s wedding day, is a first birthday party, or Doljanchi, and for Issac, his marks the last time he was with much of his extended family. The celebration culminates in the Doljabi, in which the young celebrant, adorned in traditional hanbok clothing, is allowed to grab one or two of a group of objects arrayed as part of a fortune-telling ritual: a football portends the life of an athlete, a gavel predicts a judgeship, a wallet or purse great wealth. While Issac doesn’t know what he ultimately grabbed (his unsuperstitious parents have never divulged the information), he is now a lot closer to knowing how his life will play out: think pencil, book, stethoscope, and throw in a pair of U.S. Army captain’s bars.

Issac, a 2020 UCR graduate in biology, will begin his military training at bases in Oklahoma and Texas and then enter medical school this summer at Liberty University in Virginia as part of the Department of Veteran Affairs Health Professional Scholarship Program (HPSP)—he’ll receive a full free medical education and stipend in exchange for four years of service in a VA hospital as an Army physician and officer. “I always look for scholarships first before I look for loans,” Issac explained, but noted that even if he received every medical school scholarship he applied for, it wouldn’t cover even the first year’s tuition and fees. With the HPSP, he’ll only have to worry about where he wants to serve his military commitment. As a result of his study-abroad experience, that might just be in Korea--or even Japan.

A member of the UCR baseball club team, Issac befriended several Japanese students who had also joined the team. When, during his time at Sogang, they learned he was a short flight across the Sea of Japan away, they insisted he come for a visit. “I made friends with them at UCR to make them feel welcome,” Issac said. “A small act of kindness back when they were on the baseball team at Riverside went a long way, and because of that, I was able to see two countries—South Korea and Japan—from this study-abroad trip, which I thought was really cool.”

“I was able to see two countries—South Korea and Japan…”

Group of students standing on blocks in the seoul river In Japan, Issac said he was surprised to find so few people who spoke English and so many who had ability in Korean. While in Korea, it was more likely that people would be surprised by his lack of fluency in their language. In fact, upon arrival in Seoul, he got lost trying to find his way to Sogang University using the South Korean capital’s expansive subway system. While trying to make sense of a massive map on the wall, he was approached for directions. “I am possibly the worst person to ask for directions right now,” he told a surprised young student in his syntactically challenged Korean. “I just landed in the country for the first time in my life a few hours ago, I am hopelessly lost, and I am not fluent in Korean. This is not your lucky day; I am not the right person to ask.”

Speaking only Korean until he entered public school in Camarillo, Issac was made to speak only English at home by his parents, who were fearful he would not progress in his US education. The result was that while he can understand spoken Korean and speak it well enough himself to be understood in most situations, it comes out a bit jumbled, something he is working on. He took Korean language classes both at UCR and as part of his summer-abroad program at Sogang, and was very surprised by how challenging the classes proved. “It was ironic because in my opinion, that was the most difficult class I took at UCR,” said Issac, a Moorpark College transfer now armed with a Bachelor of Science in biology and on his way to med school. “I took classes in organic chemistry, biochem, calculus—Korean was difficult.”

Young asian man standing in front of the blue house in korea In addition to the academic components and on-campus extracurricular activities with the international cohort and Sogang undergrads, the International Summer Program features an array of stimulating field trips to places like Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in the late fourteenth century under the Joseon dynasty, and Issac’s personal favorite, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip of land intersecting the 38th parallel across the Korean peninsula is said to comprise the most heavily fortified border on Earth.

Asian man standing with arms crossed in the city “It was definitely surreal and ominous,” said Issac, who learned that what he thought was a telephone pole on the northern side was really being used to jam his Google Maps. “It was really cool to be able to go into the observatory and look out, knowing there are a bunch of land mines and you’re in one of the most dangerous areas in the world and say, ‘Wow, there’s the division between North Korea and South Korea.’ I’m glad I experienced it. It definitely made me more appreciative of the efforts during the Korean War and how America came to Korea’s side. Hopefully one day Korea will be united again.”

Culturally, of course, he had no problems, coming from a family that dons hanbok to play traditional games for the Korean New Year and eats Korean food at home every day. “The food wasn’t much of a surprise when I went to Seoul,” he said, “but the street food there is bomb.”

"...the experience was so made me prouder of who I am..."

And while it was his first trip to Korea, Issac’s study-abroad experience was so meaningful it almost had the effect of a personal reunion. “I’ve always had a connection to Korea, even when I was home,” he said. “I never really lost that connection, but that feeling has definitely been enhanced. It made me prouder of who I am in the sense of where I came from, my ethnicity. Did I feel a connection? Yes, 100 percent. That connection was definitely strengthened from this experience.”

“Study abroad contributes to new perspectives on the world…”

Said Cynthia, “As we can see from Issac’s experience, study abroad not only helps students explore other cultures and practice language skills, it also contributes to new perspectives on the world, and can deepen understanding of one’s own cultural identities. This type of life-changing experience is what motivates us, our partners, and generous donors to make study abroad accessible for UCR undergraduates.”