Of course, I didn’t expect my life at KAIST to be as exciting and romantic as the Korean university life often portrayed in mass media — cherry blossom-colored campuses of rainbows and unicorns, exciting MTs and OTs, exhilarating freshman life, and so on. But even then, life at KAIST also isn’t so much like what I’ve heard from friends attending other universities, or what I’ve read and seen from social media. I therefore cannot help but wonder: is our experience at KAIST so unique compared to other Korean universities?
A defining feature you’d immediately think of about KAIST is that it’s awfully boring. Most top Korean universities are located in Seoul, and most KAIST students could have ended up there, had they chosen to. We therefore tend to compare ourselves to students in Seoul. The most culturally enriched city in the country versus the city that is nationally renowned as no-jaem (no fun) — it’s an obvious defeat. Some may argue that Eunhaeng-dong, the area near Daejeon station, and Daeheung-dong in its vicinity, resemble any high street in Seoul. But the problem lies in accessibility. A taxi ride from KAIST would cost about 10,000 KRW, and the shortest route on public transport takes 50 minutes. By then we re-evaluate the worthiness of the adventure, and naturally find ourselves back in Eoeun-dong or Gung-dong. We also have such a small student body that it’s harder to find a person without a mutual friend than a complete stranger. So we not only go to the same places and do the same things, but also meet the same people with similar academic interests and levels of nerdiness.
"A defining feature you'd immediately think of about KAIST is that it's awfully boring."
Freshman culture at KAIST is also very different from what it looks to be in most other Korean universities. Usually, in other schools, relationships people build within their departments are what matters the most in their social lives. However, in KAIST, where we don’t claim our majors until our second year, social life begins from the kind of high school you have graduated from. A large portion of the student body is from science high schools or schools for the gifted, where as many as 60 students may come from the same school per year. To avoid exclusion, those from other types of high schools also take care of those who have entered through their specific application category, building their own legacy. In the case of international students, people from the same country may have their own associations. Then, once you start school, you are assigned to one of the 31 “freshman classes” with about 30 other freshmen. When you are forced to meet them at least once a fortnight for two whole semesters, it is difficult not to make friends there. You may find it a little tricky to fully deliver the feeling of this strange freshman class bond to friends at other universities. Additionally, most freshmen join clubs, and often consider it to be the major part of their college experience as a whole. In short, students feel closer to the people they’ve met in their first year through various means, rather than those they meet later on in their chosen majors.
Another distinctive feature here is that the vast majority of the students live on campus. This influences our daily schedules. Not having to worry about sleeping family members or catching the last bus; group meetings, drinking, or even supplementary classes are held very late in the night. You can still find students in the library at 4 a.m., and the maejeom during exam week buzzes with students at as late as 3 a.m.
I could really go on and talk about all the distinctive and peculiar things about attending (or more like living in) KAIST. We’ve got a “geese crossing” sign, a massive hill with its own ecosystem, and a coin karaoke. Though we may not get to live the typical college life we dreamed of as high school students, and are unable to relate to others’ freshman adventures, every feature that defines our experience here makes it special and unlike any other. I don’t know whether I’m complacent or too used to the boredom, but hey, it’s not too bad here.