Semester abroad: South Korea through the eyes of Jean-Baptiste Roland (EPITA class of 2020)
During the 2nd year of the Preparatory Cycle, EPITA students leave their campus to spend six enriching months abroad. An exchange program is systematically organized in one of the school’s 65 partner universities, from Asia to Africa. This semester abroad provides students with a unique experience and is often an opportunity to plunge into cultures that they may eventually work with in the future, after receiving their engineering degree. This is the case of Jean-Baptiste Roland (EPITA class of 2020) who spent a fabulous semester abroad in South Korea, at the prestigious Sejong University in Seoul.
What impressed you the most when you first arrived in South Korea?
Jean-Baptiste Roland: The kindness and helpfulness of South Koreans! This jumps out at you, as soon as you get off the plane. As we arrived at night, we took a taxi directly to the university. At the airport, a stranger explained to the driver where we needed to go. And then, when we arrived at the huge university complex, the driver got out of the car to ask pedestrians where we could find our building. She didn’t want to leave without taking us to our final destination! Another good example is the subway: In South Korea, people respectfully stand in line, whereas in Paris, individuals tend to push and shove to get where they are going… And if you appear to be lost, the South Koreans will try to help, guide and explain how to get to where you are going… in spite of their natural shyness! This culture of kindness is very striking.
In general, people are more open and less aggressive than the French. It’s a very different mentality.
Another significant cultural difference is the food. The South Koreans tend to eat more savory dishes. The university restaurant, which was really not expensive, did not offer desserts or other sweet food. In the morning, South Korean students eat spicy noodles for breakfast! As for us, we ate rice and eggs, which was as close as we could get to our regular breakfast. And when we did not eat at the university, we would go to nearby restaurants – the campus is located in a very lively district in the center of Seoul. Even fast food chains that are well known in France have adapted to the “Korean style” of cuisine, offering meat and shrimp burgers, which I did not dare taste!
How easy was it to integrate into the Sejong University community?
Very easy! With the other students from EPITA, we were in an international class that included several nationalities: French, American, Spanish, German and also many South Koreans who wished to take courses in English. It’s important to know that the majority of South Korean students do not speak English, and the second language spoken in Korea is Chinese. Therefore, our South Korean classmates had to master Chinese before tackling English. And in terms of the international class, the fact that it was open to a diverse group of students allowed us to meet people of other nationalities and improve our level of English! We even rapidly organized basketball games after class. The university sports complex has something for everyone with a weight-lifting room, tennis courts, football field… Not to mention the huge library, which has 8 or 9 floors.
What was your week of classes like?
We had classes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which generally started at 8 or 9 am. Then, there was a lunch break, followed by classes in the afternoon, except for Tuesdays – when we only had class in the afternoon – and Thursdays – when we only had morning classes. This allowed us to enjoy longer weekends, when we could travel and visit more of the country!
In addition to the Korean language course, which was very useful for learning a minimum of vocabulary to get by on a daily basis, we had more specific courses: algorithms, C ++, physics, operating systems … What was interesting was the attendance verification system for each course, which worked using a Bluetooth application.
What did you learn from these courses?
As these classes were very similar to those we took during the EPITA Preparatory cycle, they weren’t too difficult. Nonetheless, we had to be serious and study on a regular basis, but the workload wasn’t too demanding. In the end, it was a very interesting experience and very useful for the continuation of our studies in France!
What other parts of the country did you visit during your semester abroad?
Even before visiting other parts of the country, we took advantage of our long weekends to discover the different areas of Seoul, often with other French students. Museums, historical monuments, the city wall … There are so many things to see! And of course, we also traveled to other parts of the country, mainly on very inexpensive buses, which are partly funded by the South Korean government for international students. This was how we were able to visit the south of Korea. Finally, just before returning to France, we visited Jeju, a small volcanic island – for 3-4 days – a true paradise – located between Korea and Japan. It was an unforgettable experience!
What advice would you give students who would like to spend their semester abroad in South Korea?
I would tell them to take their time to explore and discover the country. Even just staying in Seoul, which is one of the largest capitals in the world, there is plenty to do and see … Some neighborhoods are very young and dynamic, while others are more touristic or business-oriented. The public transport system is well-developed and fast, with a metro that is even more extensive than the one in Paris. This makes it really easy to get around Seoul.
Finally, what is your best memory of this trip?
Wow! There are so many! On second thought, there is one story that really stands out in my mind: our arrival in Jeju. We took a taxi to our hostel, but once we got to the address, we could not find it! Due to roadwork, the street leading to the hostel was inaccessible. In fact, the journey took almost 45 extra minutes, but the driver did not charge us more. We told him to drop us off and that we would eventually find either the hostel, or another place to sleep. But, he categorically refused and took us to our initial destination. This accurately sums up the mindset of South Koreans.