The past two weeks in South Korea have been an eye-opening experience that I am certain I will never forget. The Plus3 program enabled me to act beyond my comfort zone and fully immerse myself in a culture that is not my own. The range of activities we participated on the trip assisted me in gaining insight and an improved cultural understanding. I am grateful for all of the memories I made with my peers, my professors, and the Asia Institute staff.
Personally, one of the most important discoveries I made during this trip is in regards to the differences between work culture in South Korea and Western countries. One of the most stark differences between is the prioritization of work in Korean culture as opposed to quality of life. Certainly, we have all heard the phrase “time is money” before. However, this concept seems to be completely insignificant in the lives of Korean citizens. Many of them work long hours beyond their set schedule and do not complain about this. Certain companies even had created their own ‘gated community’ in which people could live in. At Hyundai Motor Company, for example, the campus had its own police, firefighters, dormitories, doctor office and more. It was surprising to see that people could spend their entire lives where they work. The work-life balance concept that the United States puts on a pedestal is not as widespread as I would have initially thought. This practice is what makes the work ethics in the United States and South Korea distinct. This ethical disparity affects engineering practices as well. The “hurry, hurry” culture of South Korea is not localized to the social aspect of their lives. There is a need in the country to work quickly and efficiently; this determination is why companies like Samsung Biologics were able to build plants with a revolutionary production capacity in less than five years. Socially, the professional interactions between the employees of one company was very interesting. Keeping “hurry, hurry” in mind, I found every worker to be passionate and determined to finish the job. Another interesting concept in Korean work culture is the presence of age hierarchy. In the United States, employees typically do not pay attention to the age difference of their superiors. Skill is valued more highly than age. In South Korea, this is not true. The older a person is, the more respect they should receive. Therefore, in a professional scenario, the oldest employee is the one with the most experience and should be followed. The decision making process in a company is dictated by the age hierarchy.
In my opinion, this concept does not hinder the productivity of a Korean company. After touring various companies throughout the country, I learned that the most successful people are those who are willing to learn new things and widen their scope. Educational breadth consists of lessons in a classroom setting as well as the experiences we have meeting new people in a new place. This study abroad trip has molded me into a more well-rounded student with experience communicating with others in a professional setting abroad. By asking questions to representatives at Korean companies, I was able to understand their educational foundation and learn about their passion for lifelong learning. The determination to continue learning with both depth and breadth is something I observed in the Korean professional setting. For example, companies like Samsung pursue a deeper understanding of electronics and seek to further technical advancements. At the same time, the company also expands to new territories, like the development and production of biological drugs. Another Korean company, NAVER, is working to perfect their AI systems while also expanding their market across Asia. The company visits in South Korea have proven to me that there are millions of learning opportunities waiting to be taken advantage of.
These learning opportunities are interdisciplinary. My two weeks in South Korea taught me the importance of functioning on a multi-disciplinary team in both a personal and broad sense. During Plus3, I was lucky to work with a team of business and engineering students for our final project. Before this experience, I had not worked with students of another discipline on a project. Our final project required both engineering and business expertise, so together we used our background to contribute to the project. More importantly, I learned from the business students about types of analyses (SWOT) that I would not have heard of before. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with new peers and, in this way, form new friendships. In a more broad sense, each student was able to see how a company needs people of various disciplines to function. Each employee is specialized and can provide new insight to a task at hand. This is extremely valuable for one’s professional development and ability to continue learning. To learn in a new setting is a gift, and being a part of Plus3 with a wonderful team is something I will cherish for the rest of my days.