Studying and living in Korea: the experience of a French Master student in STP

Master, KAIST Graduate School of Science, Technology, and Policy
Joëlle CHAMPALET
jocham96@kaist.ac.kr

As a full-time foreign student studying in the Graduate School of Science, Technology, and Policy, I would like to share my experience doing a master’s thesis in KAIST, from the point of view of a foreign student living in Korea. My name is Joëlle Champalet and I arrived in Korea at the end of August 2019. I joined this school after completing a first master’s thesis in Geography on the subject of the action capability of digital community in urban planning project. It was and is my first experience living and studying abroad and even my first time in an East-Asian Country.

Academic change and research in a foreign country

The reason I chose to pursue my study in Korea was firstly inspired by my will to gain specialty in a more technologically oriented field. As I was doing a literature review for my previous internships and my previous master’s thesis, articles on smart cities – as well as smart environments and devices more generally- written by Korean scholars and by foreign scholars in Korean context raised my interest towards this country. I was particularly drawn to the way the relationship between Korean and technology was pictured, especially when it came to the use of smart devices in everyday life. This interest was reinforced during a workshop on “Biomimicry, big data and city of the future”, hosted by the Atelier International Expérimental pour la Cité Bio-Numérique at la Cité des Sciences et de L’Industrie in Paris, where I had the chance to meet students and professors from KAIST. This is how I was first introduced to KAIST. At that time, I was already looking for universities where I could potentially apply at the end of my curriculum, and after browsing through the KAIST official websites, I found the Graduate School of Science, Technology, and Policy (STP). The academic diversity of the school as well as its focus on policy and technology drew me into applying to STP. 

Upon entering the school, I discovered new expectations in terms of administration as well as academic work. Coming from a humanity background I was used to reading and writing but not to such an extent, as the French curriculum requires many more hours of class a week than here and a lot of group projects. The hardest part for me was the format of the class. I was used to a more lecture type class, but in STP, you are expected to discuss the readings, share your opinion, interact with the other students, and answer to the professor’s questions. Classes are very interactive and stimulant, but they did ask for adaptation on my part to be fully comfortable and confident to actively participate during class. Similar problems existed when it came to the format and expectation of homework for weekly essays. Administrative demands, deadlines, and documents that are required to graduate can appear overwhelming, especially at the beginning of the semester. This kind of academic and administrative concerns were doubled by not being sure of the proper social etiquette when it came to interacting with professors and socio-cultural differences. But I was incredibly surprised and grateful for the warm welcome and the consideration that both the faculty members and my lab-mates demonstrated over my well-being and my adaptation. I was concerned that having to speak to me constantly in English would be a barrier to build relationships but everyone was keen on actively interacting with me and helping me resolve the various issues that came with the settling in a new country, such as opening a bank account and a phone subscription. I was the only foreign student in my department, but I never felt lonely. I always had someone to turn to when needed, someone to speak to or to ask for help. Exchanging with older students, or students that arrived in previous semesters provided me with a lot of explanation of how the department worked. Professors were also open to discussion, but I must admit that one of the cultural differences that challenged me was going out to drink or to eat at a restaurant with professors. I found it difficult to know how to behave and how to interact with them in these settings even though it was pleasant to meet them outside of the campus.

Starting classes, I could define more precisely the subject I would like to delve into for my master’s thesis: the transformation of inhabitant’s everyday practices in Smart Cities’ environment. Following my original interest in the Korean context, I chose to focus on a Korean City. Such a choice meant necessary struggles in terms of planning my research as every step asked for more time than if I could speak in my native language or in the interviewee’s native language, as my Korean was (and still is) limited. It meant that I needed to work on the translation of any documents that could be of interest to me. Moreover, to understand everyday practices of inhabitants, having exchanges and discussions with them seemed to be necessary, which means finding interviewees willing to speak to me in English. This language barrier is not only complicated when conducting interviews in themselves but simply to rally enough volunteers to participate. This becomes, even more, an issue when first contacts are made through emails. Such issues were brought to my intention while I was doing my final project for A.I. and Robot Policy class on library automation. Finding Korean librarians willing to speak to me in English was almost impossible, and I was only able to find voluntary interviewees.  In this context, any research steps take a longer time than usual dedicated to translation and preparation. 

Image 1. Studying Korean

Exploring a new lifestyle and culture

Moving to Korea was not only a change in terms of the academic system but also in terms of culture and habits. I had many concerns before my arrival, starting from how to have all the necessary administrative papers and the visa in time, as well as how to get from Incheon to the KAIST Campus in Daejeon. These concerns were rapidly reduced by the responsiveness of the University and the International Scholar and Student Service to any of my questions concerning the visa demand, as well as the very precise document explaining to me how to commute from the airport to my dormitory. Precise enough to give me a Korean phrase to say or show to the taxi driver and the location in the terminal of the bus ticket seller. This reactivity as well as the precision of the document where one of the first things that helped me relax in front of this experience. Even though when I landed my luggage seemed to think France was a better place to live, my first contact with Korea was through the lady at the airport who took some time to help me fill in the paperwork and called my dormitory to explain them the situation. As a foreigner who knew no one, and whose Korean language skills were limited, her kindness helped ease the stress of the situation. 

A major discovery for me was the life on campus. Campus life in France is not common, but having my laboratory, my dormitory, some convenience stores as well as basic services like a post office, bank, regular shuttle buses in one condensed space was very new and practical on an everyday basis. Everything was easily accessible on foot or by bike. The different facilities all had outlets and Wi-Fi, which was also a novelty for me and proved convenient when it came to working wherever you want. The campus is like an island, a bubble, in which one of the major risks is to end up trapped inside without having the chance to explore outside of campus. I hoped to be able to visit the rest of Daejeon or other parts of Korea, to discover more, and I have some regrets in not doing so during my first semester. As time passes, I got busier and busier, and escaping Daejeon seemed impossible. Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to have friends and lab-mates enthusiastic to introduce me to traditional Korean food. Even with our busy schedule, there are more than enough restaurants around campus to not waste too much time commuting and still enjoy a delicious meal. Speaking about food, one of the cultural differences I had a hard time adapting to is the absence of a kitchen in the dormitory. After leaving on my own for two years, I suddenly could not cook my meals and was dependent on what the cafeteria would serve. It also meant that I could not cook the food I was used too. The International Kitchen on Daejeon KAIST Campus could have been an answer, but as you must book your turn for cooking, and you do not have fridges in the dorm to preserve it, cooking becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. I do enjoy Korean food, but sometimes I wish I could cook some French food for myself or even to share with my Korean friends to give them a glimpse of my previous life and my own culture.

One thing that I am glad to have done prior to my arrival and continued now is studying the Korean language. Especially as I was interested in Korean culture and the Korean context. This is also helpful when building relationships with other Korean students. It shows them that I am not only expecting them to continue speaking in English to me but that I’m also making an effort to be able to communicate in their native language. It is also convenient when I get out of campus on my own. A lot of places’ owners are more comfortable exchanging in Korean than in English. 

The changes brought by COVID-19

I must also acknowledge the changes that were brought by the spread of COVID-19. Most of my plans to travel around Korea were drastically reduced and facing such a situation in a foreign country that was so heavily touched, does bring a lot of stress. However, as the school and the Korean government provided everyday information about the evolution of the situation in Daejeon, and different control systems were established around campus, I did not fear for my safety. Online classes were also a novelty that transformed the weekly interactions I used to have during my first semester with the other students and professors. And made the interactive style of classes a little more difficult to manage, especially when there were a lot of students. The hardest part of social distancing was the suppression of department events. Meeting Ph.D. students and professors became more difficult. Nevertheless, one of our professors proposed a weekly online meeting to read aloud the novel of Camus, “La Peste”, where I read some passage in French. It was a relaxing and enjoyable moment and a new way to share some moments with other people from the department. COVID-19 did complicate integration and interaction on the department level, but I could still see and exchange with the rest of my friends present on campus. Moreover, in a strange turn of event, most of my friends and family members in France and other foreign countries, which had to go through a lockdown and work from home, suddenly had more time to organize international phone calls with me. Loneliness was never an issue.

Overall, doing research and living in a foreign country is a challenge, both in terms of academic performance but also in terms of life changes. The language barrier is definitely the arduous part of the situation. Nevertheless, I am glad to have had the opportunity to discover a new culture and to meet new incredible people with whom to exchange and pursue my studies.

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