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The Early Study Abroad Trend

A growing number of South Korean students are going to English speaking countries as teenagers in hopes of gaining entry into American universities.

Many students study abroad during college, but Jin Yong Choi started at age 14. For the South Korean native, living overseas on his own for several years was the best way to get into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A growing number of South Korean students like Choi are going to an English-speaking country as teenagers to escape from the grueling, test-oriented Korean schools in hopes of gaining entry into American universities.

Choi, a 22-year-old economics major, studied at a private high school in Canada. His parents, who remained in South Korea because of their jobs, sent money and rented a furnished apartment for him to live alone.

“The main reason was to give me more international exposure,” Choi says. “The Korean education system doesn’t give much choice for students. But it was challenging; being independent at an early age isn’t always a good thing.”

American colleges and universities are starting to see more of these “early study abroad students,” as they’re called in South Korea. The trend began to take off after 2000 as the Korean middle class grew and the education system became more competitive. More than 20,000 such students left Korea in 2003 and 2004, according to a study from the Korean Educational Development Institute.

Unlike immigrants, the students’ moves are not intended to be permanent. They usually leave alone or with just one parent while the other, usually the father, stays behind to work and send money.

Many of those students are now college-age and attracting attention from universities and researchers. UIUC, where at least seven professors and doctoral students are studying the phenomenon, held the first conference in the United States on the issue this spring.

There are no clear numbers on early study abroad students in the United States, since most school officials are unaware of the trend. But their presence is changing the demographics of the international student population.

For years, most of UIUC’s international students were from India or China. Now, one in four of its 5,200 students from overseas is from Korea, according to Julie Misa, director of the school’s international students and scholars office.

Many of the Koreans are undergraduates, whereas the majority of international students from other countries are master’s and doctoral candidates. Of the 1,200 Koreans registered at UIUC, about 48 percent are undergraduates. Of those, 346 students graduated from a U.S. high school. The number of early study abroad students is likely higher since some of them, like Choi, have eventually obtained green cards or U.S. citizenship and don’t register as international students.

Misa says that, as undergraduates, the international students have enriched the campus with diversity. Unlike the older graduate students, “they tend to have more time for social activities and student life,” she says.

But she says problems are beginning to surface. She and her counterparts at other universities suspect that some visiting scholars may be abusing their visa status. There have been anecdotes about visiting scholars, who have fewer restrictions than graduate students and aren’t required to take classes, doing a “drop and run,” Misa says. The scholars drop off their wives and children in the United States and return to their jobs in Korea.

A UIUC faculty member was approached by a professor in Korea who offered a bribe for sponsoring his visiting scholar visa. The university recently terminated a visiting scholar’s status because his department could no longer locate him.

“We don’t want to be like police officers or immigration officers, but on the other hand when they come to our attention, we have to act,” Misa says.

In many Asian countries, a diploma from an American university has long been a prize that helps advance careers and family status. Now, Koreans see the degrees as a way out of the country’s education rat race, says Dr. Jae Hoon Lim, an assistant education professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Families want to send their children abroad so they can become fluent in English and have more job choices in an increasingly globalized society. The hope is that the students can either come back to Korea for jobs at multinational companies or stay overseas. Korean schools emphasize test scores, which then determine their higher education future, jobs and marriage prospects.

“If they can’t survive in the system, what other choice do they have?” says Lim, who is researching the trend. “Those students then come to the United States. Educating them has been a job given to the United States rather than South Korea.”

Lim says that Korean universities have not felt much of an impact because they have a large pool of applicants. But the issue has set off a controversy in that society, with parents agonizing over whether they should send abroad children as young as elementary school-age.

Many families turn to overseas private schools, which will grant student visas. Some kids may have U.S. citizenship because they were born when their parents were studying at an American university. Others may be adopted by a relative already in the country. Often, one parent obtains a visa through a job with a Korean company based in the United States or attends a college.

“As long as they believe that early study abroad will give their children an extra advantage, they will send them over,” Lim says. While some students have thrived, others have had trouble adjusting to life in the United States.

Misa, at the UIUC international students office, says that she has begun to notice a disproportionate number of Korean students on academic probation. Of the 145 international students who have a grade point average of 2.0 or less this spring, more than half are Korean.

Sunny Jeong, director of the Korean Cultural Center on campus, says that the group is trying to offer more support to the students. One project is a book of essays written by the students about their difficulties. Jeong plans to present copies of the book to education and parent groups in Korea to warn them of some of the consequences of sending students overseas too early and unsupervised.

The students “went through a lot of cultural shock, and they’re not really taken care of by the educational system in the United States,” Jeong says. “They have these depressions, and there are times they don’t feel like they can fit into either society.”

Choi says going overseas at a young age was an invaluable experience. He doubts he would’ve gotten into a good American university otherwise. But he admits there were rough times. He recalls crying in a school office the first year because he couldn’t understand his English class assignments. And he disliked coming home to an empty apartment.

He knows others who had more difficult problems. Their hired guardians never checked on them, their relationships with their parents disintegrated or they struggled with their grades.

“A lot of people are sending out their kids with great hope, but without careful consideration,” Choi says. “They have to know what they’re really facing.”

Sangsook Lee-Chung began her children on the early study abroad cycle by becoming a student herself. Her husband, a literature professor, had been a visiting scholar at UIUC in 2002, when Lee-Chung decided to start on her own graduate degree in East Asian studies. When he returned to Korea, she and her two sons stayed.

Lee-Chung, who had formerly worked as an editor, says she initially became a student to enrich herself, not to keep her kids in the United States. But while living in Urbana- Champaign, she saw how much her children enjoyed their schools. One started at UIUC last fall, and the other is a freshman in high school.

Many times, Lee-Chung has been frustrated with her studies and wanted to quit. But she has been motivated to continue by the horror of putting her children back in the Korean schools. “I think about my kids and I cannot quit,” says Lee-Chung, 50. “How can I push them to go back to Korea?”

For her doctoral dissertation, Lee-Chung has decided to study the early study abroad trend. She wonders if Korean society can ever change so that parents and children aren’t forced into such tough decisions for their education.

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