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How South Koreans prepare to study abroad

Students get ready for an American education by poring through textbooks at private "schools of one."

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.”