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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Student with passion for language learning reflects on her experiences studying abroad in South Korea amid COVID-19

Northwestern senior Sydney Smith (Weinberg & McCormick, ‘22) had already taken every Korean class at Northwestern by the time she arrived at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea to study abroad in Fall 2021. For Smith, a double major in Computer Science and Asian Languages & Cultures, this opportunity had been a long time coming.  After postponing her original plans to study abroad as a junior due to the pandemic, she was ready and eager to practice and improve her language skills at Yonsei.

Smith first began studying Korean nearly five years ago, inspired by a longstanding love of K-pop, K-dramas and Taekwondo.  Though she considered herself to be a fairly advanced learner, studying at Yonsei University provided new and unexpected opportunities to practice in everyday life.  “Korean has multiple formality levels, which takes a while to get used to,” Smith said, “Although I was able to make friends entirely in Korean, my speaking ability was slower than desired when I first arrived, especially in informal situations.”


To improve her language abilities, she enrolled in an intensive Korean class with other international students. Admittedly, she was hesitant about spending too much time with her classmates at first. “When I got there, I didn’t really want to hang out with other exchange students,” said Smith. “I wanted to make local friends, and I think I felt a bit biased against other exchange students who didn’t really want to learn Korean.”

But as time went on, her perspective began to shift. “One thing I learned is that other high-level [non-native] speakers can still be a huge resource and so fun to hang out with.  I was able to learn a lot just from talking to other friends in my class,” Smith said. She even found that helping other international students with a lower language ability navigate everyday situations, such as getting a haircut, helped her to improve.

These opportunities proved to be invaluable in light of the relatively strict COVID regulations in Korea, which meant that the majority of Smith’s classes were held virtually.  “The isolation was hard at times,” admitted Smith, “I was taking classes online in my dorm room for up to six hours a day, which made some classes more challenging.”  This also meant that it was more difficult to meet local Korean students than she expected. “If classes were in-person, I think I would have made more Korean friends, because that shared environment makes it so much easier to connect,” Smith said, “but I still made the most of it.”


By the end of the quarter, her efforts to improve her Korean had paid off. Upon returning home, “people definitely noticed an improvement in my speaking,” said Smith. “Friends who had heard me speak before and after commented on how much better my accent was, and how much more fluid I sounded when speaking.”

Looking ahead, Smith is interested in working in Korea in the future and already has plans to return. “I’m actually going back to Korea for an eight-week intensive immersion program in Busan this summer,” said Smith.  Her return trip will be supported by an award she received through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program, which provides short-term, fully funded opportunities for American students to participate in immersive language and culture programs over the summer.

Since returning, Smith has also signed up to be a student ambassador for Northwestern Buffett’s Global Learning Office and is keen to act as a resource for other students who are considering study abroad.  As a Computer Science major, she is particularly interested in promoting study abroad to other STEM students who might be hesitant to consider it as an option. “I’ve talked to a lot of computer science students since coming back, and I think many of them don’t even realize you can take CS classes abroad,” said Smith, who was able to take two computer science classes at Yonsei that helped fulfill her major requirements.


Smith also wants to help other students learn from some of her mistakes. When asked about her number one piece of advice for students planning to study abroad, Smith replied “Watch out for foreign transaction fees!  Learn from my mistake, and either get a credit card that you know will have no transaction fees or look into wire transfer options.”

Ultimately, Smith’s biggest takeaway from her experience is that you shouldn’t be afraid to put yourself out there when learning a new language.  “You might think that you’ll naturally practice with everyone you meet, but I think taking classes and participating in language exchanges is really important,” said Smith.  “If you want to learn Korean, don’t think you necessarily have to practice with Koreans. Take advantage of people in your Korean classes and others who share Korean with you as a language, even if it’s not their first language.”

Undergraduate students who are interested in studying abroad and want to learn more about Sydney’s experiences in South Korea may reach out to her directly at