For the second part of my exchange I moved North across the Han River to visit Yonsei University (Yonsei). Despite being in the very heart of the city, Yonsei also has a stunningly beautiful campus. While slightly more level than SNU, it is built again into the side of a mountain, and even boasts its own forest! Located just a couple of subway stops away from both the popular Itaewon area with its hip bars and clubs, as well as a whole host of tourist attractions it’s not hard to see why Yonsei would make an amazing destination for an exchange.
Starting life as a missionary run hospital over a 130 years ago, Yonsei was established by US missionaries and the influence is still clear to see, from the architecture of its oldest ivy coated buildings located at the centre of its campus, to the liberal arts curriculum taught in its International College.
This is something which has struck me repeatedly throughout my trip to Korea, as relentless as their drive towards the future is, it is equally matched by a profound respect and knowledge for where they have come from, and their efforts to preserve their past. Nowhere is this more evident than at some of the historical sites, such as Gwanghwamun Palace. Almost completely destroyed during the Japanese occupation, a concerted effort has seen almost 20% of the buildings painstakingly reconstructed with an ambitious project to continue this work over the coming years.
My previous post touched on how this relentless pace affected Korean students, who seem to have a universal drive to succeed and attain the highest possible marks. If SNU is seen as the ‘studious’ institution, then Yonsei is seen as the social institution, their annual festival the envy of other Universities in the city, drawing in top acts to perform in their outdoor amphitheatre. It goes much further than this though, and I listened fascinated as my student guide explained to me how students compete to gain a place in Yonsei’s Business School, not just for the excellent courses, but also to gain access to their extensive and active network of alumni.
Perhaps the thing which surprised me the most is just how important grades are in Korea. Within the UK over the last 20 years we’ve definitely seen a devaluation in holding a degree, at least outwith more vocational areas, and it is very much the case that a degree no longer guarantees you a job on graduation. This has been matched with a growing understanding of ‘graduate attributes’, those other skills and abilities you acquire through studying at University, and the importance of experiences like a student exchange to help you stand out to prospective employers. In Korea, grades are still very much key, with employers actually paying attention to transcripts. There is definitely a growing appreciation for internships amongst Korean employers, but not yet exchange. Unsurprisingly this has led to a drop of interest in longer term opportunities such as exchanges amongst Korean students, with a marked preference for short-term options over the summer. While long-term colleagues at Yonsei predict a similar trend to the UK, short-term it is unlikely that we will see much expansion of our activities with individual partners in Korea, unless we are able to offer shorter term options to their students.
Now at the end of my exchange I would say that it has been something of a bitter-sweet experience. Sweet in that Korea has really blown me away, it is a fascinating, dynamic country, the quality of the Universities I visited was breath-taking, and I truly believe Edinburgh students would gain so much from an exchange there. Bitter, because in the short to mid-term at least I don’t believe, practically, we will be able to increase our numbers significantly, and after my own experience I believe this is a great shame.