International student profile: Hena Choi ’11
This is our first installment in a series of interviews with Swarthmore international students. We hope to showcase the international student experience and explore the reasons why students leave their home countries to come to study in the United States.
Hena Choi ’11 was born in Seoul, South Korea. In this interview, she discussed her reasons for coming to study in the United States, the surprises of her Swarthmore experience, and where she sees herself after graduation.
SMP: What was your main reason in choosing to go to school in the United States?
Hena: If I went to a college in Korea, my major would have been set at the moment I entered college. I wanted something pretty different, where I could get a liberal arts education, find more interests that I haven’t really seen before. That’s my main reason for coming to the States. Also, my high school was a specialized program, so most kids in my school went to the United States, or the UK, or other countries to study.
SMP: When did you make the decision to study outside of South Korea?
Hena: Actually at the time I was entering high school I wasn’t thinking about going to the States, but a lot of people were going to the States, and I heard a lot of good stories from the people who went to the States. I met a lot of them, and they talked about their experiences here, and then I became really attracted to the idea of coming to the States. So, I think I began thinking about going to the United States around 10th grade.
SMP: What was the biggest challenge of applying as an international student?
Hena: I feel that the biggest problem was that because of the geographic distance, I couldn’t actually visit the colleges. All the information I depended on came from books, or conversations with people studying in the states, even talking to people through instant messaging. I wanted to visit Swarthmore before coming here but I couldn’t, so that was the biggest problem.
SMP: What do you think motivates international students to study outside of their home country?
Hena: I think the reason is different for each person. It really depends. At least for my friends, a lot of them already had an international background. For example, more than half of the population of my high school, they’ve lived in foreign countries before coming to high school, so they were used to a very diverse environment compared to the environment they grew up in. Korean universities would be pretty homogeneous, so I think they wanted something different, something where they could meet more people, get exposed to new cultures.
SMP: Why do you think there is such a strong presence of international students at Swarthmore from South Korea?
Hena: I feel like it’s a trend, because there are a few high schools that are considered to be really good, and consistently send a lot of students to good colleges in the States, and foreign countries, and it’s really competitive to get into those high schools. People think it’s a route, they think that if they go to those high schools, they’re going to go abroad. So I think it’s a trend.
SMP: Do you see yourself pursuing your professional career in South Korea or staying abroad?
Hena: I’m currently thinking a lot about that issue. It really depends on how things work out. I mean, I might work in a completely new country, like somewhere in Latin America or Europe. I can’t really say about that now.
SMP: Do you feel like South Korean international students tend to return to South Korea after their studies or stay abroad?
Hena: I think it’s really different depending on your major, but at least among my friends, like people who did engineering, they tend to stay in the States, and it tends to be related to visa problems, as well, the easiness of getting a visa. For guys, because they have to do military service, they have to go back to Korea for a while.
SMP: What surprised you when you first came to the United States?
Hena: Actually, before coming here, I was expecting too much cultural shock, so that I wasn’t really shocked [when I got here]. One of the main things that really surprised me was, I came here by shuttle, as soon as I got to Swarthmore, and that was my first time at Swat. As soon as I got off the shuttle, I met some Swatties who were trying to help me, and the first question they asked me was, “Hey, can I help you?” No one says that in Korea unless they know you, no one says “hi.” I was kind of suspicious at first. It was like a culture shock to me. There were a few small things that were new to me, like people eating in class, bringing yogurt to class and eating. That was considered to be blasphemy in Korea, if you bring something to class and eat it, your teachers would get really mad at you. Now I’m eating yogurt and cereal and everything in class, it’s an adjustment!
Photo courtesy of Hena Choi.