How South Koreans prepare to study abroad

Photo caption: South Korean children study on Nov. 28, 2010. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — While his eighth grade classmates were studying for exams at Pakhyun Middle School in Seoul this fall, Jung-Min Ku dropped out to prepare for a new life at an American boarding school.

These days, instead of reaching for his blue uniform in the morning, he pulls on jeans and a sweatshirt and goes to a private academy where he attends a school of one. He spends hours each day in a closet-sized classroom, working through American text books and practicing English grammar. With help from a personal tutor, he’s catching up on the first half of the eighth grade curriculum at San Marcos Academy in Texas, where he will enroll this January.

The 14-year-old boy took a break from studying on a December afternoon and practiced an introduction he might use at his new school: “Hi. My name is Jason and I like sports. Nice to meet you.”

South Korea has been a leading sender of students to the United States for two decades. More than 70,000 students were enrolled in American colleges and universities last year, a figure outpaced only by China and India. Increasingly, Korean students are leaving home earlier — going abroad for high school or even middle school — so they can learn English and have a better chance at admission to American colleges.

American schools offer more creative instruction and an alternate way up the career ladder. Students with average grades or study skills have a difficult time gaining entrance to Korea’s ultra-competitive universities, which are crucial gatekeepers for well paid and respected jobs. But American degrees and English fluency are also highly prized in the job market here.

How young is too young for a South Korean student to leave home to study abroad? Join the conversation in the comment section below.

How young is too young for a South Korean student to leave home to study abroad? Join the conversation in the comment section below.

Still, going abroad is expensive, with a price tag of up to $70,000 per year for tuition and related costs. And the transition can be jarring. Studies have shown that even the most academically successful Korean students struggle when they get to Ivy League colleges, and many drop out. For younger students, the shift can be more stressful.

Independence is a big change, said Ock-Kyung Chun, an educational adviser who is working with Ku. “For many Korean students, their schedule is not their schedule. Mothers and teachers design it and plan everything for them,” she said.

That’s one reason Chun and scores of other agencies offer intensive preparation courses to students before they set sail. Her study-abroad students typically spend from two to five months gearing up, depending on their English skills or academic needs.

In addition to getting academic lessons, the students prepare for new expectations, such as speaking up in class or getting involved in sports or after-school clubs. And they learn about different taboos, such as plagiarism. In Korea, copying information from the internet for a school assignment is normal, but in the United States, it can get you expelled.

Some academies simulate a Western classroom, assigning classic American novels and papers to write and giving students a chance to sit in a circle and participate in discussions. Chun used to run a program where students traveled to Guam or another part of Korea for a few weeks to practice studying abroad and living in a dorm with a roommate.

Ku wants to eventually become a doctor, like his father, or a sports agent, or maybe a singer. He doesn’t know yet. In the short-term, he is looking forward to attending a school that’s “a little more free,” he said. Until recently, his day started at 8 a.m. at public school and ended at 11 p.m. at the private cram school where he took extra lessons in science, math and English. He likes to play sports but has never had a chance to be on a team. He has lots of friends, but little down time to spend with them.

Many times it’s the parents’ decision to send their children overseas, but Ku said he wanted to go. He spent his winter vacation last year living with a host family and studying English in New Jersey. He liked making new friends and visiting New York City, where he saw the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. He wanted to stay longer.

When he returned to Seoul, his mother contacted Chun, a renowned figure in what’s become a booming industry of educational advisers. Over the past 30 years, Chun has made millions of dollars operating English language academies, helping children apply to overseas schools, and writing education-oriented books, including a Korean-language directory of America’s 160 best boarding schools.

Chun met with Ku and his parents and ultimately recommended that he go to San Marcos, a small college preparatory school outside Austin, Texas, where about a third of the students are international. Chun’s agency has a partnership with the school and her own son lives there and works as a counselor and study coach for about two dozen Korean students.

The structure is helpful for those who need more academic or emotional help, she said. It was also comforting to Ku’s father, who was at first resistant to sending his only child 7,000 miles away.

So far, what Ku knows about Texas, his soon-to-be home, could fill one page in his notebook. It’s the biggest state in the country. There are a lot of criminals there. (He has seen this on television). It’s far from the New York boarding school that his best friend attends. And it’s hot.

With his departure date approaching, some nights he has trouble falling asleep. “I’m not scared,” he said, “But I’m pretty nervous.”