Beyond Expectations

Temple in Asia
A visit to South Korea sparked a learning disabled student's passion for studying the region's complex history.

MIUSA: What was your experience living in the host country?

Tony: This was the first time I traveled on an educational exchange that wasn't disability-related. I wondered whether my learning differences would present a problem in the classes at Yonsei University.

I learn best by seeing and experiencing, and discovered that I was able to comprehend a huge amount at the lectures and on the cultural tours.

I was in Korea's capital, Seoul, which I like to describe as New York meets Las Vegas. There are many tall buildings with innovative architecture covered with neon signs. I was staying four blocks away from Yonsei University. At night the college students came out and would go to bars to socialize.

During the day, the streets were crowded but quiet. People were very polite and moved about efficiently. During our tours we were shown only the progressive, nice side of town. I remember the tour guide directing our attention to a museum on our right while we drove by slums on the left. When I inquired about the living conditions outside of the city or even this neighborhood, she sidestepped the question.

I was pleasantly surprised to see people with various kinds of disabilities moving around the city. I had expected a much less open atmosphere.

I was particularly impressed by a large brick stairway leading to a building which features a wheelchair ramp going diagonally through the center. It was incorporated right into the stairway, not pushed off to the side or behind the building. What was more fascinating was how many able-bodied people made use of the ramp because it was easier.

What were the benefits of the experience?

My favorite memory was visiting the demilitarized zone. We learned why it was created and how it works, and it was completely unlike anything I had ever seen before. I benefited immensely from various lectures on the Korean war. All of these groups had different stories. As students, our group had to think critically about everything we were being told.

The trip was beyond my expectations. We were treated exceptionally well and learned more in ten days than I could have learned in a year in a class about Korea. After I returned to America, I took a personal interest in the tension between North and South Korea. I really cared about the people and places I had visited.

How did this change what you plan to do in the future?

Before the South Korea trip, I was focused on learning about sustainable agriculture. All that changed when I attended Korean culture, history and language classes at Yonsei University.  I was drawn to these topics like a moth to a flame and when I returned to college I found myself participating in world culture discussion groups instead of diligently nurturing plants in the Ag department.

My enthusiasm grew and I enrolled in classes in the Martin School of International Studies. I have always been interested in history and politics and it became clear that this is where I belonged. I applied to change my major to Interdisciplinary Studies, combining international studies with sustainable agriculture.

I am excited and energized by my new major, but there are tradeoffs. For example, because the classes require a lot of reading and writing it will likely take me more than four years to complete my degree, so I have to rethink my finances.  Also, while I enjoy my classes much of my energy is spent trying stay focused, so I relieve stress by spending extra time working out. I collect my thoughts and reflect on questions while running and biking.

I was selected to represent my department with other delegates at the 2011 Model United Nations, in New York City. In the future, I hope to continue to immerse myself in discussions on world culture.

As a student at the University of Idaho, Tony applied for the Korea-US Youth Network program through CIEE. Tony was awarded a scholarship to participate in a short-term cultural exchange in Korea. Prior to this trip, Tony participated in a backpacking trek to Machu Picchu, Peru with a group of visually impaired athletes and traveled to Costa Rica on a MIUSA disability-related exchange. Tony has ADHD and learning disabilities.