Most international students choose to come to KAIST under the impression that it offers an international-friendly atmosphere, as advertised to aspiring overseas applicants. But upon arrival, many are met with the stark opposite of what they expected, facing problems involving language, culture, and isolation. These struggles have been a recurring topic throughout the years, with many discussions cycling from passionate calls for change to resigned acceptance. This has also been layered under sometimes heated debate over whether students should even bring up these problems again and again; “complaining” about them doesn’t really solve anything. But bringing them up may ultimately serve to catalyze positive changes, as identifying their root causes will serve as the foundation for feasible solutions and policies. Solving these problems requires mutual understanding and cooperation; from the side of international students, this entails willingly adapting to the culture we are in. However, there is still a need to address the unique problems that come with welcoming diverse cultures. For this article, The KAIST Herald conducted interviews and collected different opinions to detail the specific and day-to-day struggles that international students go through.
Firstly, and most noticeably, the still-significant language barrier decreases the range of opportunities open to international students. Although most classes are held in English, holistic growth goes beyond the four walls of lecture halls. There are several programs that KAIST offers for students to explore more of their skills outside of academics, including startups, volunteer programs, and additional humanities classes that encourage critical thinking and creative imagination. But a lot of these are conducted only in Korean, reducing the options open to international students wanting to invest in non-academic pursuits. If KAIST truly wishes to be a global university, it must realize that all students should be able to maximize their experience and benefit from studying here. Most international students, however, feel the opposite.
Even just fulfilling graduation requirements is already difficult. The struggle of international students during the infamous KAIST Battle Royale — enrolling in sports classes — does not simply end with getting selected. They would have to endure a two-hour class in Korean every week. Professors normally rely on Korean students for translation, but in unlucky cases, international students are left to figure things out on their own, or try to clarify information with their own limited Korean. Leadership courses are required to fulfill AU credits, but the medium of instruction of most of these classes leaves international students with only one taught class every semester (7H Leadership), which is limited to only 30 students. The other possible option is the ISSS Temple Stay program, but the scarcity of other means to obtain credits accounts for an intense competition for spots — within five minutes after its announcement, all slots are already full. Beginning 2019 Fall, however, the International Student Organization (ISO), a cultural exchange club run by Korean students, announced that AU credits will also be granted for full-time undergraduate international students participating in their overnight field trips every semester. Hopefully, this will help to decongest the oversubscription of the Temple Stay program.
Another issue is the language of instruction in regular classes. Some, originally meant to be in English, are suddenly switched to Korean even if there are international students registered. In other classes officially listed as in English, the professor chooses to give a significant proportion of the lecture in Korean anyway. Students are encouraged to report these incidents to ISSS, so proper action is done. Professors are actually financially incentivized to conduct lectures in English, so it is a disservice to international students if these responsibilities are not fulfilled, but instances continue to arise. In order to maximize the learning experience for everyone, however, there remains a need to translate important information back to Korean for those who struggle in English. However, it is crucial to draw the line between translating and discussing. Ultimately, the line becomes blurry; when the Korean translation is a lot longer than its English explanation, international students worry that they might be missing out on additional (perhaps also important) information.
The struggle of some members of KAIST to communicate in English also impacts the way international students interact and engage as members of the community. Several clubs reject international students outright due to the language barrier. While not particularly ill-intentioned, the fact that the language barrier is sufficient to repel some from even attempting to welcome foreigners is disappointing. Even with existing initiatives to integrate Koreans and internationals, such as language exchange, freshman college life classes, and cultural programs initiated by KISA or ISSS, there is still an evident divide between the two groups. Students running away from internationals who randomly ask for help on the street, a Korean group member banging his head on the table in the frustration of expressing his thoughts to an international student, and other amusing yet troubling anecdotes are testaments to this issue.
However, the mentality is starting to change; more people are actively participating in language exchange programs, and more clubs are accepting international students than before. Nevertheless, there are still issues to address, and these little improvements should not license us to stop calling for change.
Although all international students experience similar problems due to language and cultural barriers, there are also challenges that are more relevant, or possibly even unique, to international graduate students. There is no universal experience that is representative of their KAIST lives, as each situation depends on the graduate student’s department and — to a greater extent — their laboratory environment. There are a few labs where there is almost no distinction between internationals and Koreans, as professors strive to be inclusive and global. But in some cases, although there is no outward discrimination towards international students, there is a feeling of being treated like a visitor. Many lab meetings and seminars are still held in Korean, and many Korean lab members are not comfortable with conversing in English. As a result, international students are inevitably left out of discussions and social gatherings. In the worst-case scenario, some students experience extreme prejudice from labmates and are actively excluded from group activities and discussions, making their graduate experience a living nightmare.
There is a general consensus among graduate students that the facilities and research quality in KAIST are up to par with their expectations. However, the same cannot be said for their learning opportunities. Collaborations and even professional growth experiences are limited because of the language barrier. Many international students find themselves dependent on others to translate and communicate for them. In some cases, translating complex ideas from Korean to English turns into a “dumbed-down” version of the original thought. There is also little opportunity to experience the administrative side of research projects, as most of it entails using and understanding Korean. There have also been cases where international students have limited access to or are not allowed to use certain research facilities, for the reason that an international student mishandled and broke equipment in the past.
The social situation is also a challenge for graduate international students. Some students long for a sense of community and belonging, but find that it is difficult to fill while studying in KAIST. Because their life is centered on the lab they work in, it is very difficult to make friends outside their lab or existing communities. International students with small country communities often feel isolated, and the situation hasn’t changed much over the past years. Building close relationships with Korean students poses its own challenges, as language and cultural differences make it difficult to connect on a personal level. Differences in work culture also exacerbate the gap between Koreans and internationals. In many cultures, overworking is not the norm, but in Korea, people are often judged based on how many hours they spend in the lab or even on whether they work late nights and weekends. International students who come to Korea for the first time may find cultural subtleties and implicit expectations such as this stressful and confusing.
In addition to these issues, the future prospects for international students wanting to settle in Korea are very limited. Without knowing the language and getting used to the culture, it is almost impossible to secure employment. Although, in theory, anyone can learn Korean, there is not much time, motivation, or resources for international graduate students. In the face of these problems and more, many graduate students choose to leave KAIST and Korea after their programs conclude.
International students in KAIST and in Korea still face numerous challenges in adapting to a new culture and making the most of their experiences. The infrastructure, research, and academic experience provided are more than enough, but there are still individual and serious problems that KAIST has to address in a sustainable way in order to become a truly globalized campus. Although these challenges do exist and should not be ignored, we also have to remember that KAIST has a relatively short history of accepting international students. Problems are bound to arise and remain as the university adjusts to accommodate diverse cultures, in a country where resistance to change and foreign influences is deeply entrenched. The same problems are brought up over and over again, and although change may seem slow, these concerns do not fall on deaf ears. Relevant offices and organizations have been making significant efforts to resolve them, as we will explore in the next part of this article series.