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[Hello Hangeul] Harvard students immerse in Korean culture through summer program

In Seoul for two months, Ewha-Harvard program's participants upgrade their Korean skills, knowledge about two Koreas

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Aug. 10, 2023 - 09:31

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Students of Harvard University and Ewha Womans University participating in a joint summer school program this summer pose for a photo in Seoul. (Ewha Womans University) Students of Harvard University and Ewha Womans University participating in a joint summer school program this summer pose for a photo in Seoul. (Ewha Womans University)

Mariela Rodriguez Aguilar studied Korean mostly on her own for three years since high school in South Carolina.

But she learned much more Korean in the last two months she spent in Seoul. She is here with 14 other students of Harvard University for a summer program at Ewha Womans University.

“The opportunity to be surrounded by Koreans and getting to speak Korean everyday has been really helpful. I’ve learned so much,” Mariela told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

The linguistics major who starts her second year at Harvard in September chose Korean as her fourth language because she found the Korean alphabet surprisingly easy to learn.

“After getting comfortable with French, I was looking for a language with a different alphabet, and came across Hangeul. Hangeul was easy to learn, but the Korean grammar was very difficult,” she said.

Her passion for languages led to an interest in the Korean culture and the history between the two Koreas.

Regarding North Korea, Mariela is most interested in its people – whether the North Koreans are actually brainwashed or are normal human beings who were just born in that society and have control over their thoughts, she said.

During the two-month Ewha-Harvard program that ends later this month, students of both universities take two courses given by Harvard professors – a Korean language course and another one called “Exploring new insights into North Korea.”

Mariela is writing her research paper on North Korea’s claims that the US is being hostile towards it. Her focal points are whether the North's claims are true, and the US has missed an opportunity to set up diplomatic relations with the North, or whether the North is just using these claims as propaganda, she said.

Daniel Pham, an East Asian Studies major who is also taking part in the summer program, is writing his research paper on how North Korean defectors navigate their identity as they seek to assimilate in South Korea.

He plans to take Korean language courses throughout his four years at Harvard, in addition to learning Chinese and Japanese. He speaks Vietnamese at home.

Daniel got interested in learning Korean during his senior year in high school, when he wanted to be a doctor. He has changed his mind since then, and has now chosen international business as a career path after graduation.

“I thought if I go to medical school, it could destroy my life,” he said, referring to how stressful it can get to pursue a career in medicine. "I want to travel the world."

He plans to take a research course comparing the two Koreas next year at Harvard.

Among the 15 Harvard students doing the summer program at Ewha are science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors, as well as students interested in pursuing a career in government or simply learning Korean out of personal interest.

“We think about how to incorporate the (Korean) language into academics, but I think (the summer program) is mostly for opening eyes to a new culture through cultural immersion,” Mariela said.

After the students complete four weeks of basic Korean classes, they get partnered with Ewha students as classmates.

The students also went on trips to Busan and Jeju on the weekends.

"It has really been a memorable lifetime experience," said Mariela, who has her sights set on working for the government after graduation.