In trying to write about Infusion, Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine, I kept ending up with a post on Fulbright “extracurriculars.” I wasn’t very well-informed about these before coming to Korea, but they’re a big part of the Fulbright Korea program.
The beginning of this grant year, I was a combination of too overwhelmed and somewhat uninterested in doing “extracurriculars.” Even the word “extracurricular” takes me back to college or even high school, which is unfortunate since I’ve moved on and am trying to be an adult. And wouldn’t I have enough on my plate adjusting to a new culture, navigating life with a homestay and figuring out how to teach?
But now it’s semester two, and the beginning of this school year feels shockingly different from last time, which was just 7 months ago. That’s not to say I’ve got this teaching thing figured out, but the culture and homestay items on my list are mostly checked off. This year I know my students (half of them, anyway) and all of the third graders in the school. I know where to get extra whiteboard markers and sticky notes. The faces in the main office are all familiar to me, and there’s a rumor going around that I speak very good Korean. And sometimes, just sometimes, lesson planning doesn’t take quite as long as it used to.
So rather than wondering how everyone else has time for these extracurriculars, I now find myself restless on weeknights, especially as my host sisters now study late into the night. When I hear about what other ETAs have been doing, I think, hey I wanted to do that too! or Aw, I wish we had that in Gimhae! This post is a bit strange, because it may sound like a list of regrets, complaints, late New Years resolutions or something else entirely. But I’d like to both ramble about myself and give a full picture of Fulbright Korea extracurriculars, as I’ve seen and experienced them.
Back When I Was Just an Applicant
Before I’d even applied for Fulbright Korea, I was looking at extracurriculars. Actually, I was meticulously searching for any information I could find on what a grant year in Korea would be like. It turns out, there isn’t a lot of detailed information because – as we learned during orientation – it depends. Everything depends.
Some of the information I ran across were blueprints (guides) for KAMP (Korean Adolescent Mentoring Program), KBI (Korea Bridge Initiative) and WYLD (Women’s Youth Leadership Development). Actually, these programs encouraged me to apply and confidently seek out a Fulbright grant. I wasn’t a teacher and I hadn’t majored in English, so the thought of leading a classroom gave me pause. Yes, I wanted to go to Korea. Sure, I wouldn’t mind teaching English. But would I really do a good job? Would I enjoy it? These were the questions running through my mind when I started to read about how Fulbrighters in Korea were actually doing a lot more than teaching and traveling. They were helping low-income students gain greater access to English education, encouraging Korean girls to become leaders, and tutoring North Korean defectors. Wow, I thought, I could be doing that!
But the reality was a little different. Here’s where the excuses come in. But I’d like to think of it as me being honest with you. Some of the most useful and concrete information I found on Fulbright were through blogs like Mimi’s, Anya’s and Jon’s. Now that I’m here, I’d like to contribute for future grantees as well.
The reality is that when I arrived in Korea and began orientation, everything happened at once. And what was most important then was simply placing one foot front of the other. Throughout our six weeks of language class, workshops and guest speakers, we were informed of some extracurriculars, although for me, the NKD (North Korean defector) program was the only one that stuck.
The next milestone was finding out our placements – and extracurriculars were the last thing on my mind at that point. Even less so on departure day, when I was so emotional and nervous that I was just happy I didn’t get sick. And then I met my host family and worried about developing good relationships with them. And at my school I worried about teaching, using the right amount of politeness toward the principal, and how my laptop battery was broken (and still is).
I naively thought I’d be handed the opportunities to participate in extracurriculars, like we ETAs were living on a college campus (which, at first, we were) and not spread out across an entire country. The reality is that there’s no KAMP, KBI or WYLD in Gimhae. Those are in Daegu, Gwangju, Jeju – the point is, not here. I am the only ETA in Gimhae, and although Busan and Changwon aren’t far, it does affect my level of involvement.
Yet the amazing thing is that all of these programs have been started by ETAs. At quick glance, it seems like Korea ETAs are starting non-profits left and right. And that’s incredible, given that most are only here a year, some two years, and a very select few for three.
Don’t Tell Me These Aren’t Awesome
There’s KAMP (the Korean Adolescent Mentoring Program), which is intended to develop connections and cultural understanding between Korean youth and non-Korean mentors.
There’s KBI (Korea Bridge Initiative), which is very much active – meaning I’ve heard about it although I’m not involved – and provides free, accessible supplemental education opportunities to low-income students. Americans might read this and not understand what the big deal is, particularly for supplemental classes, but when the majority of Korean students, from elementary through high school, attend hagwon (cram school) after school, putting in countless extra hours of study time, students who don’t have the means to go fall behind. It’s an unfortunate reality that the Korean government has been trying to curb, though efforts seem to be unsuccessful thus far.
WYLD (Women’s Youth Leadership Development) is a group that mentors teenage girls with the intention of helping them take on more leadership roles, flesh out and prepare for their career aspirations, and network with successful women professionals.
There’s also the NKD (North Korean Defector) program, which ETAs take part in through Hana centers, funded by the South Korean government to help NKDs adjust to life outside of North Korea. ETAs typically go to a center and either teach English to a small class or have tutor North Korean defector students one-on-one.
But I Am Doing Some Stuff
Despite my regrets, I am involved in extracurriculars after all. I am a member of the Support Network, which provides basic phone (or email or KakaoTalk) counseling for ETAs needing someone to listen. Although we are especially trained on how to handle cases of sexual harassment and assault, we cover anything anyone is struggling with.
I’m a staff editor for Infusion, a literary magazine run and published by ETAs. It’s been around since 2008, and was definitely on the list of things I looked at before coming to Korea. The workload gets intense right around deadlines, but, I mean, look at the result. Plus, after months of speaking slow-paced, basic English, the fall staff meeting was surprisingly refreshing. We discussed and debated and challenged each other…in fluent English! Once in a while, I need the reassurance that I’m not losing my English skills.
Recently, I’m also working on the “Visibility Project,” an endeavor that our program coordinator and a smaller group of ETAs are preparing for incoming classes of ETAs. It’s something that has been attempted in the past, but not to completion or satisfaction. This year, we hope to produce a video that we can show to incoming ETAs, consisting of interviews with ETAs talking about how their various identities have affected them in Korea. This is intended to be a space to share experiences with race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, religion or whatever has featured prominently in an ETA’s grant year. Personally, I’m also really hoping to see some discussions of body image and fat phobia.
So while I haven’t ended up doing what I thought I would, I’ve also gotten to do things that I didn’t anticipate. And the grant year isn’t over yet.
(Oh yeah, and my school hasn’t stopped adding things to my schedule. I told you – those excuses.)