Students link cultures.
It's not a large city, population just over 100,000. It's manageable and friendly, and the nearest big city is over an hour away. It's close to a large river but otherwise landlocked.
And, of course, it's home to an exceptional higher-education institution that proudly bears its city's name.
Columbia College, in Columbia, Mo.?
Yes. But also Kongju (or Gongju) National University (KNU), Kongju, Korea.
Columbia College has what's called a three-plus-one articulation agreement with KNU, allowing students who study at KNU and at Columbia College to graduate with a bachelor's degree from both institutions. The majority of students from Kongju, however, come for a few semesters to improve their English skills and learn more about American culture.
A tale of two students
One of these students is Mi Ok Jung, from Wando, a small island off the southern coast of Korea. And last semester, Columbia College student Kayla Corcoran, of Columbia, Mo., who had made good Korean friends here, took advantage of a Korean government program called TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korean) to immerse herself in Korean culture and community life by teaching conversational English to Korean elementary students in an afterschool program.
Both young women are petite, animated in conversation and appreciative of the international learning experience. Both are seniors and both want to help others after graduation: Jung, a tourism major in Korea, perhaps as an English-speaking tour guide; Corcoran, a human services major, perhaps as a Korean translator on a campus or large city with a substantial Korean population, like Los Angeles.
Jung is studying English. Corcoran is taking Korean at the University of Missouri. Jung previously lived abroad, in Cairns, Australia; Corcoran had been out of the United States but never lived abroad before boarding the plane to Korea. Corcoran can't wait to go back; Jung probably will, too, after she graduates in 2011.
And the similarities don’t end there. Both also experienced culture shock that was mitigated by patient, native roommates, such as the vast differences in cuisine and, for Jung, the far more open nature of American society.
"A bowl of rice and tuna for breakfast!" say Corcoran. "I usually skipped breakfast and had lunch with my kids."
"Not so much rice and stew," says Jung, "and so much soda."
Jung is still somewhat in academic culture shock. "Everyone speaks to everyone the same way here! That is not done in Korea. You have to speak much more politely to people who are not good friends, and especially to people senior to you," she says. "There is a totally different vocabulary to speak to an older person," especially teachers. "In Korea, students listen, teachers teach. Here they demand interaction."
Corcoran says she cherished her time with her kids in the after-school program. "When I left, some of my elementary school kids were crying and begging me to come back. They said, ‘Come back and be the U.S. ambassador!' I am still energy-charged about it. I loved everything about my experience."
Corcoran also had free time to sightsee, explore the ancient (5th century AD) city of Kongju and its surroundings and hang out with friends in samgyupsal (bbq) and coffee shops.
"I have not explored Columbia much," says Jung. "Yes, everyone is so friendly, but I am so busy with my studies! It takes me much longer to do everything because it's in English."