Studying Abroad Amidst Covid-19: The Long-awaited Departure to South Korea

When I had walked into the study abroad office on a whim a little over a year ago, I truly did not know what I was getting myself into. I was just an innocent freshman studying in the Academic Building, who decided “I think it would be convenient to go as a sophomore next spring before the curriculum picks up; might as well explore my options in going abroad” while staring at promotional study abroad décor on the second floor. Oh, she really didn’t know what was coming. Not that I regret the day at all, but the hurdles I encountered and dealt with in order to get myself to Korea seemed never-ending during the past few months, to put it simply. At the end of the day, however, I am thoroughly elated that I didn’t give up on this trip and hope that there will be much fruit from my suffering hard work in the coming months.

To introduce myself a little: My name is Elizabeth Le and I am a sophomore environmental engineering major. I am Vietnamese-American and a first generation college student. Naturally, I never imagined I would be able to study abroad at all during college, but if I could do it truly anyone could (as long as your curriculum allows it of course!). I had several reasons for choosing South Korea as my destination and there were also a few factors that I always had to keep in mind in order to make this trip work.

Growing up, I had naturally consumed various types of Korean media and entertainment as I was surrounded by a large Asian-American community and enjoyed many comedic variety shows. K-entertainment is how I became interested in learning Korean and I hope that through this trip I can gain some degree of fluency in the language, especially with reading and speaking. As an engineering major as well, I had been interested in visiting Korea or Japan due to their industrial and technological innovations; I had wanted to see the differences in infrastructure and city layout and experience the differences first-hand. Out of the two destinations, South Korea turned out to have much more affordable program expenses, which is also another reason why I had chosen this destination! I feel as if I have many goals for this trip; whether it be social, academic, career, or language goals. At the end of the day, however, I am someone who has never been abroad before and also just want to thoroughly enjoy this new culture and meet new people.

I had been preparing this trip for a year before my departure and had been saving up and budgeting, planning my classes with my academic advisor, or going through the the application process within that time frame. I think the biggest issue for me as well as many other students was how I was going to fund this trip, especially as a student that had to worry about other reoccurring expenses. Which is why it was crucial for me to begin saving up early, although Covid-19 did make it quite difficult at times. I don’t think I would have been able to go on this trip without receiving scholarships from Drexel and another national scholarship, so I would encourage anyone to apply for them!

Preparing for study abroad is an ordeal in itself, but with Covid-19 added on, the level of daunt increases exponentially. Although, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying their best to go abroad. Due to the pandemic, my trip was finalized only a little over a month from my departure date and my documentation was finalized only 2 days before my flight. There were many variables that came into play, but at the end of the day it was due to the restrictive nature of the pandemic! As of right now, if I were to give anyone advice on studying abroad during Covid I’d definitely tell them to finish preparing their visa even if it’s uncertain if the trip will go through if it’s cutting too close to the start of the program. I honestly wish someone had told me this and I think this applies especially with Covid-19! Eventually, my trip had been decided and I was truly ecstatic to leave the U.S. for a term! I left Philadelphia with a nervous heart on February 12th, although I was oddly calm and neutral after arriving in Korea. I was surprised at myself even, as this is my first time abroad ever!

I had expected the Philadelphia International airport to be rather empty upon arrival, as one of my fellow study abroad mate Karen, had reported to our group that JFK airport was alarmingly empty throughout her departure process due to Covid. There was a good number of people in the airport and on my flight to Dallas and again to Incheon, South Korea; which surprised me! However, the experience on the American end was very smooth and quick despite Covid and it being my first time going through a layover by myself. I was surprisingly calm throughout the process, but I also think it’s because I was confident it would go smoothly due to how I absolutely made sure to have all the proper documentation and my growing confidence with independence in general.

My gate to Korea at Fort Worth International Airport

I was actually excited to go on my first 2+ hour flight, but that excitement had quickly died when I realized I wouldn’t be getting any sleep around 5 hours into my flight with 10 hours left. I accepted the fate of a light sleep and managed to stay hydrated and binge-watched episodes of different Korean variety shows. If I were to go back in time, I think I would not have eaten much of the food provided to me during the flight. Something I heard after I landed was that one of the best ways to beat jet lag and plane fatigue was to avoid the in-flight meals that are high in carbs and preservatives.

My first ever in-flight meal

My plane touching down in Incheon, South Korea! I was incredibly excited!

After a sleep-deprived fifteen hour flight I had finally landed in Incheon! I guess, this is where things began to get a little more fast-paced and hectic, but I think it’s important that I share my experience! After I had exited the plane I was directed to a line where they would collect Covid-related documentation that I had filled out on the plane as well as take my temperature and verify my identity.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to take any pictures of the airport process after landing as the rest of the way felt very rushed as well. From what I remember, it was made sure that I had a quarantine app installed that would track my location for 2 weeks to ensure that I didn’t leave my quarantine area and my quarantine address was also verified for this. I also had to provide a phone number so the airport personnel could contact a Korean representative confirming my intended presence in the country. I was then directed to take a picture and hand in another form and then I was free to pick up my baggage and leave! Everything wasn’t exactly as fine and dandy as it seemed, however, as I had gotten lost and exited out of the wrong terminal. This paired with the lack of communication with my pick-up service had delayed my ride to my accommodation even further. I had realized at some point during this that I would probably struggle throughout my trip communicating with locals due to how I don’t look like a foreigner at first glance. I had found out that my driver had initially not approached me because he wasn’t expecting an Asian American! Eventually, I had made it to my hostel in a lively area called Hongdae after an hour long drive and I was very happy to start settling myself into my environment!

All in all, I think it was a valuable experience to have as a first time traveler. Covid-19 had definitely complicated many aspects of the trip here and it had most definitely complicated the preparational portion of the process, but it is possible to arrive smoothly as long as you are prepared and know what to expect!

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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