Photo courtesy of Sarah Mack
Sarah Mack of Mechanicsville has been studying in Seoul, South Korea, as an exchange student.
It’s been a whale of a year for Sarah Mack.
The 16-year-old native of Bowling Green moved to Mechanicsville in February, just two weeks before boarding a plane to head to Seoul, South Korea, to spend a year as an exchange student. Her parents are Greg and Chrissie Mack.
Sarah’s big move and journey came after her scrambling to complete high school in Caroline County a year and a half early. It was either finish early or graduate a year late, due to logistical differences in her Korean and American schools, so Sarah opted to pile on the classes and receive her diploma at just 15 years old.
The idea for her year abroad grew out of interaction with some Korean interns at her Taekwondo studio, Sarah said. What started with a few Korean phrases to help her interact with the interns grew into a deepening fascination with their language and their culture.
“I learn loving languages,” Sarah said. “That’s my biggest passion.”
When her Spanish teacher suggested an exchange trip, Sarah, who had studied Spanish for three years, started eyeing Korea, despite the fact that she didn’t have much experience with the language. No Korean classes were offered at her high school, so Sarah opted to study Chinese before her trip since about 60 percent of the Korean language is derived from Chinese.
Upon arrival, Sarah still spoke broken Korean, but said she used other aspects of Korean life to help her vocabulary grow by researching Korean history and culture in English, then reading about the same concepts in Korean.
“Learning a new language can change how you think about things, especially when that language is completely unrelated to your mother tongue,” Sarah said.
“People talk about the language barrier,” Sarah said. “But it becomes more like a bridge than a barrier after awhile. Those eureka moments just make your day. It can be really hard, but it’s so worth it.”
Sarah said she hopes to use her love of languages, fascination with other cultures and experience living overseas to pursue a career in international relations. She also hopes to return to Korea one day to work with LINK, or Liberty In North Korea, to help suffering people from the northern portion of the war-divided country escape to and settle in South Korea or China.
“Their policy is to not get involved with politics but with individual people and try to help them form lives,” Sarah said. “North Koreans put their pants on one leg at a time just like we do. They’re not any different from you and me.”
When she returns to Mechanicsville this month, Sarah plans to spend her time until the fall college semester working to save money for school. She’s applying for early decision acceptance to several schools.
In the meantime, she’s learning all she can, following the rigorous school routine that is standard in Korea. Students typically leave for school as early as 7:30 a.m., and, after their normal school day, head to private specialty academies called hagwons until anywhere from 7:30 to 10 p.m. She attends a martial arts academy, where she’s attained the rank of first degree black belt.
“If you’re in high school, school is your whole life, even on Saturdays,” Sarah said.
In her down time, Sarah enjoys living with the family of a friend from school. They take her along on vacations and include her in holiday celebrations. On one recent trip to a cabin in the mountains, she got to spend time with their extended family, enjoying food, horseback riding and celebratory traditions.
“They were so warm and welcoming to me. I started feeling like I was really belonging with this family. It hit me that I’m in Korea and I’m a part of this – they didn’t speak to me like a foreigner observing this cultural experience,” Sarah said. “The best moments I’ve had here are the moments I really felt like I belonged.”
After all, she said, that’s the whole point of the experience: integrating into the culture.
Sarah also has tried to use her experiences to teach others. Along with answering curious Korean friends’ questions about the United States, she has started a video blog to document her experience living abroad for viewers from around the world.
Her YouTube channel, which can be found at www.youtube.com/user/sarahsseoulsearch/videos, has more than 2,000 subscribers.
Her videos, some of which have more than 10,000 views, cover everything from school life and how to prepare to be an exchange student to tours of her host family’s apartment and a Korean McDonald’s.
The experience hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, but Sarah said she sees the bad times as an opportunity to grow.
“There have been a lot of very difficult times, but I’m so glad I came,” Sarah said. “I’ve learned how to deal with it when things aren’t going my way. I can’t just go to my mom and tell her what happened. I have had to learn how to deal with not only the problems in front of me but my own emotions as well.”