South Korea is known around the world as a country that values education and study. From kindergarten through to university, Korean students (and parents!) work hard to ensure educational needs are met. Academies, study rooms, and national tests abound, all with the intent of furthering students’ academic skills. Whether you agree with their system or not, I won’t convince you otherwise. Instead I’d like to share with you a glimpse into Korean university life, a microcosm of Korean society that is so much more than just tests and study rooms. I should divulge however, that my Canadian nationality identity means that I can never truly understand what it is to be a Korean student. What I offer here are observations from my work teaching university students and about 100 interviews with current students from four different universities, compiled and summarized for your reading pleasure. I hope you find this world as fascinating as I do.
The university school year begins in late February or early March and continues until mid-June. Students usually enter university immediately after high school, and the practice of taking a “gap year” or working year is not commonplace. Male students often attend university for one or two semesters before they are drafted into mandatory military service, where they will work for two years or more and this means it is especially important for them to get an early start in their university studies. As if preparing for university wasn’t cause enough for anxiety, the impending military service is a worry that occupies the thoughts of male students and those of their families, friends, and girlfriends and can be very difficult for young couples. Like anywhere else in the world, many Korean students begin dating seriously in university and the resulting lovebirds become known as a “Campus Couple” or CC. CCs can be found strolling campus dressed in matching couple wear, even studying hand-in-hand, much to the annoyance of their instructors!
Besides the eventual military draft and new-found dating life, students face many other changes. While Koreans study longer and harder than many other countries in the world, the freedom of university can be difficult to manage. “Who wants to study anyway? We’ve been studying for YEARS!” seems to be the battle cry of the university student. The first week of freshman year is full of eager smiling faces, but as the second week starts, the novelty wears off quite quickly! During those first few weeks of school, students crowd shops, clubs, and bars with friends and freshmen bask in their new-found freedom - at least until they run out of money or are faced with the depressing results from that first quiz of the semester. Then, like magic, that famous Korean study ethic returns and students fill the libraries once again, reminding me of my own hard-learned university experience. Ah, memories.
Studying in university is similar to high school, where learning focuses on test preparation. Indeed, tests, tests, and more tests fill students’ time as they did in high school, but many students confided to me that they were surprised at the number of written assignments and presentations they had to prepare each week, a distinct departure from their previous schooling efforts. I asked students how they felt about all of these tests and assignments, and one freshman told me, “Hate. I feel hate,” but then admitted that tests still aren’t as bad using the crowded library and that university is more fun anyway. Win some, lose some I guess!
Students told me that they studied anywhere from two to seven hours per day outside of class, with class hours taking up eighteen to twenty-five hours each week. Students also said they didn’t have a lot of free time, which is no wonder considering their course load! For this reason few students take part-time jobs during the school year, and only a fraction more work during their vacation. While it is common in western countries for students to work part-time jobs during the school year and to work full-time during vacations, many Korean students told me that they prefer to study, volunteer, or intern with work related to their field, their future careers on their minds even during vacation. That being said, every student managed to find free time on the weekends, and watching movies, shopping, and playing computer games or sports were listed amongst the most popular hobbies, second only to “rest” which seems to a be a euphemism for sleeping late!
I’d imagine that sleeping late must be difficult for the students who live in dormitories and share small spaces with anywhere from two to five other people! In Canada, it is more common for students to live in small single or double-occupant dorm rooms, or to share a larger apartment with (multiple!) roommates, so the crowded dormitory image was a difficult one for me to conjure in my mind. Tales of messy roommates and late-night dinners consisting only of ramyeon were much more familiar to me, and they brought forth a flood of horrifying memories I doubt you want to about read here. All of the students I interviewed told me that they were grouped in classes and in university housing by major, meaning that there would be little to no escape from their classmates, so perhaps this is why most students told me that their roommates are their best friends, a good thing if you’re going to be sharing a bunk bed! Thinking back on my university days, I don’t think I could have shared a dorm with so many people, but I suspect that the group mentality of Koreans makes the living situation more comfortable, and I’m sure they’d have found my living arrangements equally puzzling. At any rate, the Korean students I talked to seemed to like it (or tolerate it!) just fine
Indeed, bonding is a big part of the Korean university experience, and there are three major events to ensure the necessary team-building: M/T or “Membership Training” and two school festivals, which take place in the spring and fall. M/T is super fun and takes place before midterms of the new school year. Guided and organized by the senior, junior, and sophomore students, M/T helps freshmen to meet one another and their elder peers, and allows the older students to take on a kind of mentoring role. Students are divided by major and then stuffed into busses and carted away from the university to a pension or cottage where they spend two days and a night getting to know one another in a way that can only be facilitated by close sleeping quarters and the possible addition of alcohol. Games, songs, and talent shows make up the night’s entertainment with costumes, wigs, and some (not so) smooth dance moves to help students laugh at themselves and to break the tension that comes from hanging out with people you don’t know too well. By the next day the students are already way more relaxed, even as they do the work of cooking, cleaning, and packing up.
The spring festival follows M/T, just after midterm exams, where different majors compete against one another for various and hilarious titles of honour. Students represent their major on different teams, some chant or sing on the cheering and choral teams, and others demonstrate their prowess in sports such as baseball, soccer, or jokgu or in sillier competitions such as tug-of-war or three-legged races. Cheering competitions are one of the toughest contests to beat, and one of the most coveted titles to earn. The group cheering competition is intense and loud, with students practicing the skill of shouting and clapping in unison on any corner of the campus and at any time of day! The smaller cheerleading team competition is a top-secret affair, where a small group of the most talented dancers and singers don wild costumes and dance their hearts out to win glory for their department. Last year’s winner at my school festival used smoke machines and fire jets to clinch the win for their major!
While dancers, athletes, and singers duke it out, other students work away in the tents, selling beverages and snacks to fellow students, professors, and members of the community. It can be a costly affair to run these tents, so students use all kinds of marketing techniques to lure their customers, from posters and mascots to outright flattery (“Well hello, Professor! You look lovely. Please eat some pajeon”)! They work hard, but not too hard. University festival tents are quite possibly the only businesses in the world that close their doors after they break even! Students want to enjoy the fun for themselves, which includes frequenting the tents or catching the headline concert, often a current K-pop group invited to perform.
While the spring festival is all about fun, the fall festival is more academically oriented. The fall academic festival allows students to showcase their work, displaying portfolios and projects in hopes of leaving a lasting and positive impression on their superiors and peers. This festival is a great source of pride, and students spend the better part of the second term preparing for it. In fact, all of these events and studying can be quite tiring, and many westerners find it surprising when they spy Korean students sleeping in public locations around town. It seems counter-intuitive but cafés seem to be the preferred place to take a nap. When was in university, I‘d go to the coffee shop to stay awake!
The little differences I’ve noticed are too numerous to mention here but mostly I’ve noticed how similar things are. Students here claim that they’re broke, skimping on textbooks and pencils, yet they somehow always find the money to have fun on the weekends which isn’t too different from when I was in school (sorry about that, Mom). It would seem that students everywhere love to procrastinate and hate to write tests, and Korean students are no different. So next time sleeping or studying students are hogging all the chairs at your favourite café or holding up the line by paying for their order with either 100 won or 10 cent coins, just shake your head and place your order for take-out. No matter where they are, the minds of tomorrow are probably too busy worrying about the troubles of today to notice!
Special thanks to all of the students and their teachers who contributed to this article and thanks to Lauren Wilson and her class for sharing your photos and classroom experiences with me. And students, keep studying hard, but don’t’ forget to have fun!
Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly three years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.