Last semester, I volunteered as an English tutor for North Korean defectors. I was paired with a college student from North Korea and taught her English, but more importantly she taught me a lot about a diverse culture I had never learned about. She was one of the most positive people I have met during my study abroad experience and she taught me so much during our time together. I enjoyed my volunteering experience so much that I decided my story wasn't enough. I interviewed other students at CIEE during the fall semester of 2018 to find out what they enjoyed about their volunteering experience and how it impacted their study abroad lives.
I decided to ask four simple questions.
1.) Why did you decide to volunteer in South Korea?
2.) What did you gain from this experience?
3.) What was your favorite part of volunteering?
4.) What will you take away from this experience?
There were many diverse opportunities to volunteer such as mentoring North Korean defector kids, holding new born babies at an orphanage, teaching English to Chinese-Koreans, English tutoring for North Korean defector college students, and recording English audio books for blind kids. These are just a few of the opportunities that were available during my academic year abroad, meaning there could be more or different opportunities in the future.
The responses for all the questions were overwhelming positive, so I thought it would be best to share some of their experiences.
Rachel, a student volunteering as a mentor for North Korean children, said, "I decided to volunteer in Korea because not only did I want to be generally involved during my stay here, but also be a part of something that makes a positive change, even just a little one." Towards the end of her experience, she believes that volunteering gave her a deeper understanding and knowledge about North Korean defectors in general and found ways to better approach and help them.
Another student, Sunny who volunteered with babies and toddlers at an orphanage, read for the audio books, and volunteered with North Korean refugees, said she decided to volunteer because she had always believed volunteering was very important and both Korea and CIEE has a lot of great opportunities to get involved. At the end of her volunteering experiences, she said, "I was certainly humbled through all of the volunteering opportunities that I have done in Korea...Just listening to their stories or hearing about their past and the ways that we can help them have inspired me and also broke me in a lot of different ways. It certainly has made me more thankful and grateful for my life and all of my little struggles seem to not be as important anymore." She continued, "My favorite part about volunteering is knowing what I'm doing is making a big difference in their lives. I always joke about how when I hold the babies, I talk to them in the languages I know and talk to them about famous composers or history. But I do this because I want them to know everything and I feel as if they were my own child. Everyone always talks about how I cry every time I go to the orphanage but it's because I look at their faces and I think about their futures and I think about how awful it is that they were left behind. The same thing with my work with the North Korean defectors. I listen to their stories and how they overcame all of their struggles and challenges and it always inspires me to do better. It's my favorite part; I always learn more about myself as well as them."
Ashley, a student who volunteered as a mentor for North Korean defector kids, felt touched as well. She explained, "I think I've become more grateful of my family and the way I was able to grow up comfortable. I also am constantly reminded that you truly never know what someone has gone through. These kids act just like normal happy kids although their lives have been different from anything I could even imagine. My favorite part of volunteering is when I show up every week and the kids are genuinely happy to see me! They smile and they shout my name and come up and hug me! We often make crafts and sometimes the kids make me crafts to take home. It just shows how sweet they are and how much they appreciate me."
Other students like Sabrina, who volunteered teaching English to Chinese Koreans, and Naomi, who volunteered mentoring North Korean defector kids and holding new born babies at an orphanage, both said that through their volunteering they were able to learn more about Korean culture and Korean language, as well as become closer to the kids they were mentoring and teaching. Naomi mentioned, "I like to see the kids and babies smiling and see them grow up. The happiest thing is when they recognized me." Furthermore, through these volunteering opportunities it has inspired Naomi to hopefully one day adopt kids from countries she has been to. She stated, "I know someday I want to take care of kids and spread love to kids. Because everyone has the right to be loved and receive love."
All the students I interviewed said that they took away more than they expected from this experience. It was much more than just learning about Korean culture and language. Through these experiences, the students have learned about themselves and valuable lessons about the world they live in.