By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing
The recent expiration of South Korea’s COVID-19 quarantine restrictions has allowed students in the Judy Genshaft Honors College to advance their virtual study abroad program to an extraordinary in-person experience.
Twenty students just returned from Seoul, where they finally got to meet their pen pals from Yonsei University whom they’ve been video conferencing and messaging with throughout the spring semester. It’s part of the course, “Korean Culture and Identity,” which teaches students about the nation’s history, politics and social norms. It’s the first study abroad program to begin virtually and the first faculty-led trip to South Korea since the start of the pandemic.
“What I like most about this format is that the USF students are learning through the coursework, but also getting first-hand exposure through their pen pals,” said Kevin Lee, academic advisor and adjunct faculty member. “I think it’s allowed studying abroad to be better for most of the students, instead of just throwing them into an experience they might not be prepared for.”
Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was a young child, created the class with USF Fulbright scholar Ky Pontious, who’s currently teaching English in South Korea. It first launched in 2021 as a Virtual Global Exchange experience, providing students an alternative to traditional study abroad programs, which were temporarily halted due to the pandemic. The course’s pen pal exchange was such a hit that Lee launched the Korea Virtual Pen Pal Program, opening up the opportunity to develop a rich and diverse understanding of Korean culture to more students.
“It takes a lot of the pressure off because you’re learning by speaking with another student,” said Jordon Myrick, a junior studying sociology and English. “You’ll find that you have more in common with people no matter their background if you make an effort to get to know them.”
While students were not required to speak Korean, many chose to learn a few words and use translation apps to improve their communication – all part of the cultural experience, Lee said.
Evia Fleming, a junior studying studio art and psychology, said communication did come with its challenges, but it did not overshadow the 20-day trip, which included exchanging popular snacks with her pen pal.
“The most memorable moment would be when I first met Dokyoung,” Fleming said. “I gave her some Goldfish, Milano cookies, Cracker Jack and Welch’s fruit snacks, and she gave me some salty wheat wafers, a fish-shaped bread dessert and chocolate chip cookies from a famous Korean brand.”
After touring the Yonsei campus, Fleming, along with a group of USF students and their pen pals, ventured to a board game café where their pen pals taught them how to play Yutnori, a traditional Korean game. “It was icing on the cake to be able to talk with and explore the home city of other university students,” Fleming said.
“Many students never get the opportunity to study abroad due to a number of reasons, but we still want to make sure they have international collaboration skills they will need to be career ready after graduation,” said Rene Sanchez, assistant director of USF World’s Education Abroad Office. “Virtual Global Exchange helps us expand access to these critical international experiences through programming, like the Korea Virtual Pen Pal Program, to students in an effective, interactive, and real way, fostering collaboration and communication like never before.”
USF World honored Lee and Pontious in 2022 with a Virtual Global Exchange Early Adopter Recognition for their efforts to provide a Korean cultural experience to all students.
“We often see people in the workforce are just not prepared, especially when it comes to cultural competencies,” Lee said. “I am using this class and program as a model to teach students how to appreciate and value other cultures. I hope they will take what they learn and apply it to different settings throughout their lives.”
USF World hopes to offer more virtual pen pal to in-person experiences in summer 2024. In the meantime, they’re working to build a variety of Virtual Global Exchange courses and encourage interested faculty to inquire and/or join the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning’s Faculty Learning Community, which launches this fall.