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Drake dives into Korea

Summer abroad includes trip to the Demilitarized Zone
Valerie Drake of Solon after the closing ceremonies for an international summer program in South Korea. Drake is holding the gayageum which she performed with during the closing ceremonies and is wearing traditional Hanbok. Behind her is the main building of the Ewha Womans University campus. In the far background is the cityscape of surrounding Seoul. (photos courtesy Valerie Drake)

SOLON– Valerie Drake was lost in Seoul, South Korea.
She had flown from Cedar Rapids to Detroit to South Korea’s Incheon International Airport and taken the bus to Seoul, but despite researching in advance, she took the wrong turn and couldn’t find her hotel.
It was night, she was exhausted and she didn’t have international service on her cellular phone.
But she planned it that way.
Drake, a 2014 graduate of Solon High School, traveled to South Korea for a summer program at Ewha Womans University, in Seoul, to help complete her minor in Korean at the University of Iowa (UI).
With very important support from a secondary Dollars for Scholars scholarship, the University of Iowa Honors Program and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, Drake took advantage of the UI study abroad program to further explore her interests in global health and East Asian cultures.
When she was in high school, her family hosted a Japanese foreign exchange student.
“That really opened my eyes,” Drake said. “Especially to the East Asian side of things. I started to get a lot more curious.”
One of her best friends in high school, Leah Griffith, was Korean.
“She was adopted, but we were both really interested in Korean pop culture at that time, and Asian culture in general,” Drake explained.
Leah’s family also hosted a Japanese exchange student, and she and Valerie began taking Korean classes through the UI.
After high school, Drake was an undecided major at Iowa until the end of her sophomore year when she settled into a double major: International studies with an emphasis in global health and East Asian studies; and Russian.
Valerie is currently researching health policy and writing her honors thesis on the effectiveness of voluntary regulations.
Despite controversy, Drake said global health is everyone’s health.
“It’s the health of everyone and how it affects each other, especially in today’s interconnected world,” she said. “Not to mention the political side. That’s always interesting when you’re looking at policy.”
It’s all on a pre-international law track, she added.
She’s also adding a minor in Korean, the reason for her going abroad.
“That’s why I decided to go to Korea in the first place,” she said.
According to an anthropologist she spoke to, there are over 100 different languages now spoken in Iowa .
“We’re definitely a lot more culturally diverse than we used to be, especially in the last 10-20 years,” she said.
The sound of Korean was so unusual to Drake, there was something about the different phonetics and cadence she found beautiful.
“I just found it really interesting,” she said. “And the writing system is simple but really complex at the same time.”
The current Korean alphabet has characters for each sound, so you build a block for each syllable,” she said.
“You can learn it very quickly.”
Which took her to Seoul, South Korea, and the Summer International Program and Ewha Womans University.

It was the first time she’d ever left the country or been on an airplane.
But she did her research and had a plan.
She arranged to get there a few days before the program started; had researched what bus to take, had arranged hotel.
Arriving in Seoul at night, she ended up a half-block from her accommodations turned in the wrong direction, lugging her suitcase and a backpack over the cobblestone sidewalk.
“I mean I planned it that way but when I got there, I was kind of like, hmm, this should be interesting,” she said. “But that’s when you get to use your language skills. Because I definitely got lost quite a few times, and that came in handy for sure.”
She waited until she saw someone who might help, a girl about her age who turned out to be a student.
“She took me right there,” Drake said.
“Korean people were very welcoming, when you reach out and ask for help,” she continued. “I was lost multiple times, and whenever I’d ask for help they would do their best to try and get you to the place you need to go.”
Ewha Woman’s University, the first women’s university in Korea, has its entire campus built into side of the mountain, in its own little locality, completely surrounded by a commercial district.
Seoul itself has a population of about 30 million people, Drake said, including the suburbs.
“It’s absolutely massive.”
Ewha combines modern and traditional aspects, she said. The stone wall entrance features a mural adorned with pear blossoms. According to local legend, if you take a photograph there, you are rewarded with really good fortune, Drake noted.
“So I made sure to get pictures of that with my friends, you know, because you can’t go wrong with that,” she said.
The original mural was fabric, but tourists tore the pear blossoms off as souvenirs and it was then replaced with stone.
But that didn’t stop someone from coming at night and chiseling the blossoms off.
“So now they have a guard at the gate to watch for that,” she added.
Drake attended Ewha’s international summer college program, which included students from 24 different countries and coincided with the summer semester for Korean students.
To satisfy the requirements for her minor, she enrolled in two courses; Korean Traditional Music, and Ancient Korean Culture and Society.
As part of the traditional music class, Drake learned to play two ancient instruments– the gayageum (an upright 12-string) and changu (drum).
Drake preferred the gayageum, which is plucked with one hand while the other hand adjusts the string pitch.
“I wish I could’ve taken one home with me, that’s how much I liked it,” she said.
The class wore Hanbok (traditional style of dress) and memorized eight pieces on each instrument for recorded performances. Class sizes were small, with morning and afternoon sessions, allowing Drake to explore Seoul in the free time remaining after studying and school work, or take advantage of several excursions arranged by the school.

She went to a lot of cultural sites, including the national museum, but also visited more touristy areas, with tea houses and handmade crafts.
Most of the time she was with friends, but she wasn’t afraid to go somewhere on her own.
“The whole time I was in Korea, I felt safe. Even though it’s such a huge city, I never felt uncomfortable,” she said. “People just did their thing.”
She had to keep an eye out for beggars and scams, but they were not aggressive, she noted, and she wasn’t really warned away from any part of the city.
“When you’re a foreigner you feel separate from the society you’re in,” she said. “I’ve never had that feeling before.”
Once she made the effort to bridge the gap by speaking Korean, however, and become more immersed into the society, the more comfortable she felt.
“You just have to have the initiative to reach out first,” she said.
All of South Korea is the size of a Midwest state, with most of the population either in Busan or Seoul.
Restaurant fare was inexpensive, with a good sized meal for less than $5, she said. More traditional restaurants would serve complimentary side dishes.
Seoul has more of a night culture, she said, with stores opening at 11 a.m. and running late into the night.
“The streets, shopping districts, everything is a lot busier at night, and they’ll stay out typically to two in the morning,” Drake said.

The last of the arranged trips was to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), the border between North and South Korea, just 26 kilometers from Seoul.
“That was eye-opening,” Drake said.
The tour guide told her most Koreans did not have an interest in the DMZ, but she didn’t believe it until she got there.
“It’s basically a foreign tourist site,” she said. “For the most part, it was all foreigners.”
The tour bus passed through a series of military checkpoints into a desolate jungle surrounded by barbed wire and signs warning “STAY OUT MINES.” The DMZ landscape was completely desolate, the heat almost tropical.
“It’s one of the hottest places I’ve been in my life,” Drake said.
The group visited the Third Infiltration Tunnel, a North Korean attempt to tunnel into the South disguised as a coal mine.
“That was scary,” she said.
It was open to visitors who had to scrunch down and hike underground wearing hard hats while the water dripped on them from above, until they reached a restricted area and turned back.
It was an uncomfortable feeling for Drake.
“You could see the parts of the tunnel where they planned to put explosives in,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like that, I’ve never been in a place that was so clearly militarized.”

Drake left Iowa June 15 and returned home July 19 with her view on the world sharpened.
“You really do have to learn about, experience and accept differences between belief systems, how people act and the history behind those things,” she said. “It’s not about tolerating it, it’s about understanding that everyone’s different. There’s not always a simple right way or wrong way.”
Actions speak louder than words, and Drake wants to have her own positive impact on the world.
“Whether you agree or whether you disagree, individual interactions are very powerful and you can touch people’s lives even as a single person,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. You’ve got to go out there and work with everyone else that’s trying to do good in the world, and try to figure things out and make it better for everyone.”
Go big is her motto.
“Just aim for as much as you can.”