This past January I was fortunate enough to spend the whole month in Korea!! I went on the trip for MIT’s Global Teaching Labs program, and so I spent the majority of my time there planning and teaching a STEM workshop for a week in Seoul and a week in Jeonju for local Korean students. I’ve visited Korea before, but this trip was my first visit in a while and was also a vastly different experience. I usually visited extended family and wandered the Insadong or Myeongdong shopping districts with my mom, but this time I spent almost every waking hour preparing lesson plans and travelling with my three teammates. Even though it was a lot of hard work, I’ve always loved teaching and working with kids so it was super rewarding to get to work with the local students! I also stayed for a couple of days after the program ended to visit family friends and just wander around the city eating and shopping and exploring 🙂
What is Global Teaching Labs (GTL)?
GTL is a MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) program that sends students to foreign countries during IAP (the month of January) to teach STEM workshops to local students. Every country’s program works differently, but for the Korea GTL program we were put into teams of four undergrads, and we all worked with different groups of students ranging from middle to early high school. The program is fully funded (which meant free flights + accommodation and some spending money!) and we stayed at airbnbs throughout the program. Some of the hosts included orphanages, welfare centers, and international schools, where we taught one or two week programs.
I applied to the GTL program all the way back in the beginning of the semester, and because of the COVID situation restricting international travel, even as I was filling out the application I remember thinking “this probably isn’t going to happen, but why not apply anyways?” After going through the interview and getting matched to a team, throughout the meetings with the entire GTL cohort (including a sequence of Korean culture lessons and seminars teaching us how to be effective educators) and our individual team meetings to plan the contents of our workshop, there was always this foreboding sense that our trip could get cancelled at any second. It was also very disheartening when some other countries’ GTL programs started to get cancelled during December due to COVID concerns, so it wasn’t until I was actually on the plane to Korea that I actually believed that the trip would be happening(!)
I arrived in Korea on December 28th and proceeded to spend the next 10 days in a hotel in government-mandated quarantine, which actually… wasn’t so bad? I think that this might be a hot take though because some of my fellow GTL students were definitely not enjoying being stuck in a room for ten days straight (and understandably so…), but I thought that it was a nice break from the outside world and a good chance to relax. Waking up without an alarm is such a rarity and because of the jet lag I was sleeping at 9pm and waking up at 6am every morning which was absolutely amazing (and far from my sleep schedule during the semester… though I try). I started watching a Korean drama (what’s wrong with secretary kim which I never quite got into enough to finish), did some art for the first time in a while, and caught up with family and friends which was really nice 🙂
quarantine hotel view 🙂
A typical quarantine meal— spicy rice cakes with nakji (baby squid)!
* do NOT come out of your room *
The highlight of my days were definitely the food deliveries, and one of my friends commented that the regular delivery times started to make him feel like a dog constantly waiting to be fed. To which I could only say… woof woof? Seriously, though, my life during those ten days revolved around the regular meal schedule of bento boxes being delivered at my door— breakfast at 9, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 5:30. And I was lucky enough that my food was pretty good! You don’t get to decide where you stay for your government quarantine— you just board a bus at the airport and they drive you somewhere, but no matter where you end up you pay the same price of roughly $1000 usd for ten nights (thank you MIT). Some of the hotels are said to have better quarantine food than others, but I can testify that the food at the Grand Hyatt Incheon was a solid 8/10 overall B)
Most of the meals consisted of rice, a tray of side dishes (kimchi, quail eggs, fish cakes, egg rolls, spinach, etc.), a main dish (stew, pasta, rice cakes, some sort of protein), and if I was very lucky, a piece of fruit (a banana or a mandarin orange) or a muffin (those were the best days). My only gripe was that I kept getting these instant 된장찌개s (bean paste soups)— there was a point where I was getting one with every single meal, which meant that I was accumulating them much faster than I was consuming them. Some of my friends were getting ramen instead which made me very jealous :’) The amount of freedom that I felt after leaving quarantine and getting to decide what to eat on my own was absolutely amazing and I was definitely ready to eat everything that Korea had to offer!!
Some of the food I ate in Korea 🙂
After getting out of quarantine, I dragged my two giant luggages full of teaching materials to the airbnb that our team would be staying at for the next week, which was an hour and a half train ride from my quarantine hotel. (Trying to navigate the city with luggages made me understand how inaccessible some of the public transportation is, with the lack of elevators and ramps and whatnot, despite its convenience. There were times when we all had to carry our suitcases one at a time up ten flights of stairs to exit a subway station, and my lack of arm muscle and 50 pound suitcases didn’t mix very well :v ) We immediately started purchasing materials and preparing for our workshop that was beginning in a couple of days! I wrote about what happened every day during the first week of our workshop here if you’re interested in reading about that, too 🙂
Our first week we taught students from a local welfare center, and the students ranged from 12 to 15 years old with varying levels of prior knowledge in STEM and English, which definitely made life much more difficult for us since two of my teammates didn’t speak Korean. We spent a long time modifying our lesson plans and adding translations to all of our slides and kahoots that night :’) We had workshops from 1 to 5pm every day but often arrived at around 11am to set up for the workshops, which meant that we usually had to leave our airbnb at around 9:30 to account for the 1.5 hour commute time to Pangyo (Korean Silicon Valley, and where the gaming company that sponsored our workshop, Smilegate, was located). As soon as the workshop was over at 5, we cleaned up for a while before doing a team debrief over dinner, then immediately started the prep work for the next day’s workshop which sometimes went pretty late into the night (or morning)— so we didn’t have much time to just relax or explore 🙁 The second week was much more relaxed, though, because we were essentially repeating the first week’s workshop with some modifications based on what worked/didn’t work. We didn’t have to come up with lesson ideas or create materials or slides from scratch which definitely made life a lot easier.
The second week’s workshop was in collaboration with the Jeonju government, a city about a two hour bullet train ride outside of Seoul. Transporting all of the materials we needed down to Jeonju was made a lot easier thanks to the staff at Smilegate who helped ship a lot of things down for us, like the miscellaneous sheets of cardboard or styrofoam for the kids to use for their rube goldberg machines. We also met the city governor and got to go explore the traditional Hanok villages and wear hanboks over the weekend which was really fun! All of the staff that worked with us were so helpful and the kids were super sweet and I was so grateful that I got to meet and work with all of them 🙂
This trip to Korea might not have been the most relaxing, but I thought that it was one of the most meaningful parts of my college experience so far and I’m so glad that I was able to experience it all! I loved being in Korea and experiencing the culture and just wandering the city, and as much as I love good food and shopping I think that getting to teach and form meaningful connections with students and staff through GTL is what truly made this trip special. Travelling abroad was one of the things that I really wanted to do going into college, and this was an amazing opportunity to visit Korea and also work on something that I’m really passionate about— education! I definitely recommend applying to GTL or a study abroad program sometime during college, and maybe I’ll end up applying again next year, too…?
Until next time!