The first part of my staff exchange in Seoul was at Seoul National University (SNU), which is based in the south of the city. I’m not sure what mental image you have of Seoul, maybe tall skyscrapers and neon lights, or perhaps pagodas and traditional wooden buildings, I certainly wasn’t expecting how green and beautiful their campus is. Especially seen from above it practically blends in with the surrounding forest. Steep too, definitely steep, but built into the sides of Gwanak mountain that’s to be expected!
The staff at the Office of International Affairs were incredibly welcoming, and over my two days with them I felt that I received a real insight into how things are organised at SNU. On thing which really stood out to me was how everything at SNU is geared towards learning, and helping students achieve their full potential. It’s easy to see why they are ranked #36 in the world (QS 2018).
Nothing sums this up more than their phenomenal new library. The old library, which still exists and is incorporated into the new structure while maintaining its own integrity, looks surprisingly like the Main Library at Edinburgh. Or at least it did until the new library, a glittering golden bridge of a structure, was built directly over it. The whole place has been carefully crafted and constructed with the service users in mind. Study spaces and desks are bookable through a digital system, and there are a variety of different spaces to meet every need. From glass rooms where you can write notes on the walls, to desks with individual reading lights or comfortable booths to watch films in, they really have thought of everything. Korean students work hard, this is a theme I’ll return to, but with this in mind there are numerous relaxation spaces with plants, fountains for students to recharge. Art work abounds throughout and it is frankly one of the most amazing spaces I’ve ever visited.
It was built with the help of ‘Friends of SNU Library’ and it’s impressive to see how their Alumni and Donor communities worked together to fund this impressive building. No support has gone unrecognised, and throughout the building there are names on everything, from the backs of chairs, shelves, or entire study rooms, donors can immediately see exactly how their contribution was used!
The one thing which seemed strange to me was to learn that before building began there were protests from staff and students, as the expansion necessitated the felling of some very old trees. The work clearly went ahead and the trees have found a new home within the Library, they have been turned into six benches! I would have loved to speak to one of the protestors and ask how they felt about this, as I’m still not sure if this is a moving tribute too said trees, though it was certainly intended as such!
The biggest highlight for me so far though was meeting with some Edinburgh students currently on exchange at SNU. I’ve worked on exchanges for almost 6 years, and this is the first time I’ve actually been able to meet up with students while they are on exchange. It was amazing hearing about their experiences over a relaxed lunch (and hilarious lunch for them due to my poor chopstick skills – honestly Korean metal chopsticks are HARD to use! Top tip: Wear dark trousers…) and it seems like they have had an amazing time so far. This also reinforced for me the importance of projects a number of colleagues within Go Abroad are currently undertaking which will better help us capture the experiences of exchange students, as they have so much hard-earned knowledge and experience, and it’s essential we find ways to pass this on to other students.
This brings us back to the study culture in Korea, and at SNU in particular as it’s widely regarded as the most studious institution. All our students had stories of Korean friends who literally move into the library before exams and can spend 3 DAYS studying there to prepare. One student recounted how their roommate (dorms tend to be twin rooms here) returned from studying at 11pm and were shocked to find them relaxing and asked “if they didn’t feel bad being so lazy?”. What impressed me most about the Edinburgh students I met was the huge level of maturity they had displayed in how they dealt with this difference. To me at least they seemed to have a really good understanding of how they studied most efficiently, and were able to use this understanding to support themselves through the experience. You could imagine that it would be all too easy to get drawn into trying to match local students – and while in some part this isn’t a bad thing, and trying different studying styles is a major benefit of an exchange – 36 hour straight study marathons sounds like an excellent way to burn yourself out if you’re not used to it.
To finish with some observations about the city itself; Seoul is BIG, and I mean REALLY BIG. With around 10 million inhabitants it quite literally never sleeps, and there are almost always people out and about. It’s also the safest city I have ever visited, I have genuinely never felt safer or maybe able to wander around a city then I have here. This safety extends to the University, and it’s common for students to leave phones and laptops unattended in study spaces, as no one would dream of taking them. (If the Insurance Office or Insurers are reading we of course remind students they have to take sensible precautions to safe guard their belongings if they wish to claim on the policy).
Despite English not being widely spoken, I’ve found it incredibly easy to get around. The subway system lists all the stops in Korean and English, and it’s cheap and really easy to use. I also used one of the Airport Limousine Buses (don’t get too excited, just a coach!) to get to my first hotel, and it was so cheap and straight forward I’ll definitely be using another to return to the airport.