International Students Provide an Unexpectedly Refreshing Perspective on Life in the U.S.

The daily grind. We all know it; we live it every day. Routines are established, tasks are accomplished, and we continue to pass through the same places and interactions day-after-day. As time goes on, we grow accustomed to the wonder that surrounds us in the places and people we frequent. In many ways, the magic is lost.

Though it often seems as if there is no escape from the maze of daily disenchantment, there is a powerful antidote to burnout: a change in perspective. Each year, thousands of international exchange students travel to the U.S. to experience American life and education. Each of these students has a different story, background, and intention for coming school in America. Most importantly, each of them takes something different away from their time here. By speaking with these students, we not only gain an understanding of their story, but of our own. Rather than seeing life in the U.S. through the same pair of beat up lenses we’re accustomed to, we’re given the opportunity to put on a new, fresh pair.

Songha Jo, a sophomore at Concord University, is an international exchange student from South Korea. Originally from Pohang, a middle-sized, coastal city, Songha began her collegiate career last year as an International Trading major at Andong National University in South Korea.

According to Songha, the onset of COVID-19 last year prompted Andong to transition to online learning. This transition prevented her from meeting with professors and classmates in-person. Due to the abnormal circumstances of her freshman year, the transfer to Concord and in-person classes led Songha to feel as though she had “started [her] university life in the U.S.”

Despite the challenges COVID-19 created for Songha at home, she believes the pandemic presented her with an unexpected opportunity. Due to concerns around travel and illness, “there were not many competitors for the exchange program” and “I am thankful that I could make this crisis a chance.”

Though Songha is ever-optimistic, her transfer to the U.S. posed obstacles at the outset. When Songha first arrived at Concord, the majority of students and faculty had not yet returned to campus. With water fountains closed off due to COVID restrictions, and unsure who to ask, Songha initially struggled to find water. Songha was also not aware of the Dollar General in town and had trouble understanding the vending machines “because their system was different from Korean ones.”

Ultimately, Songha preserved and was able to access water on campus. However, she has been presented with another challenge while living at Concord. “The only sad thing is that I don’t have a car”, she said, “it is almost impossible to travel and even get to Walmart myself.”

In spite of these challenges, Songha has maintained an impressive optimism about her experiences in the exchange program thus far.

“Living in the U.S. is quite challenging, but I am sure that it must be meaningful.”

Songha Jo

It is not only in her struggles that Songha finds meaning, but in virtually every experience she encounters. From people, to scenery, and even on her walks, Songha presents a refreshing appreciation for the culture and landscape of the U.S.

“When I was in Korea, I heard that people open the door and wait for someone who comes behind them. Now, I experience it every day. This is such a sweet culture.”

Songha Jo

Through interactions with friends and professors, Songha has determined that she “loves the people who live here” because “they are so friendly and kind.”

On walks through campus and the surrounding town of Athens, Songha is “always surprised by the beautiful nature and views,” and she is “moved every morning and evening” by the sunrise and sunset.

Ultimately, Songha has enjoyed her time in the U.S. and looks forward to her remaining year here.

“I am satisfied with this life at Concord, I hope I can fully enjoy this year in the U.S.”

Songha Jo

When asked if Songha would recommend Concord to friends back in Korea, she responds enthusiastically, “of course!”, in fact, she’s “already recommended Concord to some of my friends.”

Songha will return home to Pohang when her exchange program ends, but the memories she created at Concord will remain for a lifetime. “I will miss the people and landscapes here when I go back to Korea.”

When talking with Songha, it becomes evident that Americans have lost a sense of enchantment with their everyday surroundings, and who could blame them? Contending with political strife, a global pandemic, and the everyday drudgery of life has a way of doing that. However, Songha provides a much needed gift to Americans experiencing burnout from the daily grind: perspective.

Songha came to the U.S. with little knowledge of what to expect. Despite her challenges, what she found here was beauty, kindness, and an appreciation for American culture. Songha treasures each and every detail of her daily life, right down to the sunrise and sunset. If there’s anything Americans could use right now, it is the ability to appreciate the little things, a lesson kindly provided by Songha.

by Callie Lamb

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