Compiled by Hye-eun Jeong, Duman Kuandyk, Chan Ju Chong, and Simeneh S. Gulelat
Life at KAIST is an extraordinary one; in the rather remote area of Daejeon is a community of a diverse population of students and faculty. KAIST has over 900 international students from 95 different countries; some are full-time students while others are here to experience the life at KAIST for a few months as exchange students. There are numerous programs at KAIST to ease the transition of international students to Korea such as ISSS, ISO, the Buddy Program, and many more. Although a lot of information is passed along to international students, it is often a one-way exchange; this month, three international students at KAIST — Louis Alen, Farid Razai, and Johannes Müllers — were invited over to the Herald clubroom to share their college experiences in this new country.
The three students are quite new to the life in Korea, as they all arrived in August only this year. Louis is an exchange student from Belgium who goes to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and is currently majoring in aerospace engineering. Farid is an undergraduate exchange student from Germany, where he attends Technical University of Munich. Although he studied engineering science in Germany, Farid currently majors in mechanical engineering at KAIST. He has also been active as an athlete, playing for the KAIST Internationals Football Club (KIFC) and Ultimate Frisbee Team Titans this semester. Johannes is also a student from Germany; he attends Hochschule Furtwangen University and came to Korea as a graduate exchange student. He studies mobile systems in Germany, but is currently majoring in computer science at KAIST. All from diverse backgrounds and interests, Louis, Farid, and Johannes shared their unique experiences and stories regarding different aspects of living in Korea such as social life, culture, and academics.
When speaking of the language issues among the international students at KAIST, Johannes was the first among the interviewees to share his opinion. He said: “Most of the people [from the same culture group] would just stick together all the time. For example, some of the Germans — they would need to improve their English, but at one point, they just stick together with the Germans because it’s easier.”
His opinion was supported by Louis Alen. He explained enthusiastically: “I prefer speaking English in general, so that everyone can understand. It’s just nice. A lot of Germans speak German, and it’s annoying. It would be nice if everyone spoke English.” On Johannes’ remark that this does not relate to Germans only, Louis elaborated that “Germans are just one example, it’s not exclusively Germans.”
On the question about the advantages and disadvantages of being an international student, Farid said, “When you are an international student, you are in this bubble of international people. Also, when you spend most of the time on campus, you are just going to the university and talking to people from your own or neighboring country. You don’t really experience something new.” Johannes continued Farid’s words, saying, “Most of the internationals would say ‘Yeah, let’s hang out,’ but if you want to hang out here in Korea, you always have to get out of campus and go to a bar or a restaurant. And if you want to hang out with some girls as well, back home you would hang out not for relationships’ sake, but just to hangout. But here it’s not possible. This is what we all have to get adapted to.” On further discussions about the disadvantages experienced by the international students, Johannes said that “The downside is, I think, the language barrier. It sometimes feels like you’re in an international bubble, and you’re not really integrated into the group. For example, if you’re in a class, a Korean would never approach you unless you’re in a team together. So normally in classes, the Koreans I’ve had experiences with either don’t care about you or just sit there.”
When talking of advantages, Johannes added that “In my opinion, we have a lot of advantages like the ISSS who are really taking care of us. They try to show us as much Korean culture as possible in a short amount of time. And if you have questions, they are always there for you. They’re not annoyed even if the questions are dumb.”
He also described the benefits within the international community of KAIST: “I think the best thing is that you have the experience to meet not only Koreans, but also more international people. For example, I am able to now have friends all over Europe, which is great because we can travel.”
Culture was a recurring theme throughout the conversation. In fact, their reason for coming to KAIST was at least partially motivated by their fascination with Asian culture, and they indicated that many exchange students apply for exchange in Korea for similar reasons. Louis said he spent his last summer in Japan and “really enjoyed the Asian culture”, prompting him to apply to KAIST. He had the chance to explore rural Korea on his weekends as well, and fondly reminisced the road trip with his parents when they visited Korea: “We took the car down south, and to the east as well, and we really saw the different parts of the country.” Johannes’ reasons were more invested in Korea’s history. He said he is “interested in Korea because they managed to rebuild their country in almost 70 years to become this powerful country in the world ... with the automotive industry, with Samsung, with LG.” Farid, on the other hand, is no stranger to Asian culture, having grown up in a town called Düsseldorf, which is home to a significant number of Japanese people. He said, “We have Little Tokyo and stuff. I had a lot of contact with Asian culture and I always enjoyed it.”
One aspect of Korean culture they were especially excited about was Korea’s food-filled, high-tension drinking culture. “Intense,” was Louis’ first reaction upon being asked about the drinking culture. Farid also pointed out the distinct differences between Korea and Germany’s drinking culture: “When you go to a bar in Germany, you never order food and only order drinks. But here, you always order drinks and food together. I prefer [here].” Johannes said they couldn’t have adapted any better, and shared an interesting episode from a while back: “There is a non-stop bar at the west gate, and there was one night at the beginning of the semester when most of the internationals went to the bar and there was unlimited drinking for two hours. We managed to drink so much that the bar ran out of beverages, so we went to the next 7-Eleven, bought soju there, and brought it back to the bar. So now, they are really strict about international students drinking there. I guess we adapted very well.”
Hailing from TU Delft in the Netherlands, Louis wasn’t quite used to the pace at which professors at KAIST dispense homework and assignments. He said, “[In Netherlands], if you study one week for the exam, and if that is enough for you, then you pass the exam [and] you pass the course [regardless of] whether you even saw the professor’s face.” Things work differently around here. Most of us know that slightly falling behind on some course material can cost a semester’s worth of effort. Johannes, on the other hand, felt that the academic ambience at KAIST seems all too familiar. Professors at his school levy coursework by weighing in how students in previous semesters performed. “If the professor thinks that the grades from final exams are bad compared to [those of] the last semester, he would carry out mandatory homework,” he said. “If it continues to be bad, then the classes themselves can become mandatory. Professors in Germany are really focused on how the students learn.” He also reflected on how doing the exchange program at KAIST is a lot different from doing it elsewhere. “My buddy told me he is going to Germany next semester; he is not going to take any courses — he’s going to fail all the courses — and he’s just going to travel around all the time.”
However, Farid’s experiences resonated more with Louis’. He stated that, in Munich, he had little homework to do in his first few semesters, and that some students barely meet their professors before marching into the exam room. “The system in KAIST is a lot more like a ‘school’,” he said, “and I had to adapt to that.” At his university, students often get to lay off some work until exams start to creep up, but he felt that at KAIST, he doesn’t have a choice but to keep grinding throughout the semester. “Sometimes I need to stay up until 4 [a.m.] because I’m procrastinating all the time and I want to finish the homework. So, there is a bit of stress.”. The grading policies, just like the courses at KAIST, were different: “Here the grades are all relative but in our university it was absolute. Sometimes when they notice that the exams are way too bad, they may change the grades. There was an exam where 80% of the people failed, but there were also exams where most people got A+. I also got an A+ in this exam, but my friends who took it before me barely passed”. He also reflected on how doing the exchange program at KAIST is a lot different from doing it elsewhere. “My buddy told me he is going to Germany next semester; he is not going to take any courses — he’s going to fail all the courses — and he’s just going to travel around all the time.”
Though the conversation mostly hinged around the academic trials and tribulations of incoming exchange students, Louis didn’t shy away from being candid about a few of the less formal, yet delightful, perks of being an exchange student at KAIST. “It just has to do with the language barrier that they come explain to you what you don’t know,” he noted, adding, “It’s a privilege you should not abuse and I haven’t abused it, but it has fallen in my favor a couple of times.” Farid agreed. He found that if there’s any domain that is particularly sensitive to international students, it’s academics. He said that KAIST professors sometimes fear giving bad letter grades to students coming from other institutions because they worry about tarnishing the global reputation of KAIST, and quite possibly discouraging other aspiring foreign students from stepping through its doors.