Heading into my semester abroad at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, I never expected it to be the cliche over-the-top, life-changing experience. As an International Studies major at Macalester, I was required to study abroad, so I decided on South Korea to broaden my knowledge of international relations and East Asia while away. Macalester lacked the classes that I was interested in: classes that dealt with East Asian policy, and especially classes that were taught by Asian-identifying professors. Consequently, I registered for five classes during my fall semester at Ewha:
- Introduction to Korean Culture (to get a better understanding of the country)
- Korean Economy (to understand the complexities of Korea’s economic activity)
- International History of East Asia (to learn about the governance and policy of Asian countries)
- Social Problems in the Contemporary World (to see how Ewha compares with Macalester regarding teaching human rights)
- Practical Korean I (so that I can survive in a new country. lol.)
To put it simply, I wanted to learn about Asia from Asian scholars themselves. I have always had an interest in East Asian politics and development, so that was my primary reason for choosing the five classes that I did.
De-mystifying the process of choosing a career
I’m one of those people who despises those generic, I-don’t-know-what-to-ask-a-college-student questions. Here are a few that I can think of off the top of my head: What are you doing after graduation? What jobs can you get with your major/degree? Isn’t a liberal arts degree difficult for getting jobs?
The reasons behind my dislike for these on-the-surface questions are two-fold. First, stop stressing the college student! I’m pretty sure she’s well aware that her graduation is in the near future. There’s no need to ask about the existence (or lack thereof) of a job. Better alternative: Do you have anything in mind for post-graduation?
Second, no one has their entire life planned out at 20. EVEN THE PEOPLE WHO ARE ASKING THE QUESTION. Trust me on this one. My supervisor at my summer internship began as an accountant, went into advertising, and is now an entrepreneur. A professor at Macalester was a firefighter while he was in graduate school before beginning his career as an academic. The message here is that it’s okay for career paths to change. Interests change + people change = maybe a career change? Makes sense.
So how does this relate to studying abroad and my career trajectory?
Good question. I consider myself as someone with a variety of interests. It’s great for my passion for learning, not the greatest when trying to figure out my career interests. During college, I went from considering going into academia to becoming a business analyst to a consultant to doing marketing. The way I explain my dilemma is as follows: in high school, I was required to go to all my classes. I had classes that I liked and classes that I didn’t. I didn’t wake up every morning dreading school, but I didn’t wake up every morning loving it either. It’s the same for me in a career. While I believed there are careers out there that will make me excited, I don’t think I would mind taking a job that is financially stable yet lacking in the excitement factor.
I actually didn’t come to my little ah-ha moment until after my semester abroad. It is still a very vivid memory for me. I was on the long-haul transcontinental flight back to the US half-asleep and half-sick. A sudden passing thought made me confront myself.
“Are you studying and doing something you really want?”
At the time, I declared an economics focus within my International Studies major (it’s Geography now) and tricked myself into believing that I had a genuine academic interest in economics. I leaned too far into “logical Rachel” and completely neglected “emotional Rachel.” After I fully understood my reasons for feigning academic and career interests in fields that I felt no pull towards, I saw my true interest.
There were signs in every part of my life pointing me in the same direction. A Facebook post from Gilman suddenly popped up onto my newsfeed about graduate programs in foreign service. A recruiter for an international affairs fellowship contacted me via LinkedIn. A friend asked if I considered working for the foreign service out of nowhere. It’s difficult to explain, but I felt like the world was trying to tell me something. Maybe foreign service is my calling…
What’s the takeaway from this blog post?
Studying abroad changed me in ways that I didn’t expect. I expected to make new friends and learn about a new culture. I expected to get culture shock and miss the familiarities of home. And I also expected to be exposed to new academic thought. I didn’t expect to become more self-aware than before. And I definitely didn’t expect to stumble upon a career interest.
I admit that I still don’t have plans for this summer solidified yet. And that’s terrifying for this student who plans every minute of her life on Google Calendar. Simultaneously, I’m not as stressed as before. I’m comforted in knowing that I am being honest with myself about my needs and my wants in a career. I have a destination in mind. I just need to figure out how to get there.