The Nineteen: Emily Wilbourne ’22 in South Korea

Emily Wilbourne is one of 19 undergraduate and graduate students studying abroad and Studying USA this fall. "The Nineteen" is a series where we’ll take a closer look at these students’ stories to learn how global education is happening in this historic moment.

This is the first in a series from the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center titled “The Nineteen featuring Elon students participating in study abroad and Study USA programs this semester.” 

The majority of the more than 500 students scheduled to study abroad or Study USA this fall have instead enrolled in on-campus courses, many because their programs were canceled and some deciding to pursue global engagement in spring 2021 or a future term instead.

However, 19 undergraduate and graduate students are studying abroad or Studying USA this fall.

Students are on a range of programs, including:

  • Study abroad in Germany, Rwanda, South Korea and the United Kingdom
  • Study USA in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
  • Business Dual Degree in Spain, France and Germany
  • Physical Therapy clinical placements in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Pennsylvania
19 undergraduate and graduate students study abroad and Study USA this fall.

Global engagement during a pandemic inherently comes with more variables and ambiguity, including dynamic travel regulations, on-site health and safety considerations, risks to local vulnerable populations, and whether modifications are possible without compromising the integrity of the program.

All of this means that global engagement will look different for these 19 students – perhaps from how it ever has or ever will look again.

The Nineteen is a series where we’ll take a closer look at these students’ stories and learn from pandemic practices around the world and how global learning looks in this historical moment.

Emily Wilbourne ‘22, an arts administration major from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina was determined to participate in her study abroad experience for fall 2020 by any means possible.

Wilbourne at Bukchon Hanok Village. 

“I came into college already planning: fall semester of my junior year is when I’m going to go abroad,” she said. “I knew that coming into my college experience.”

Working closely with Executive Director of Global Engagement Rhonda Waller and following a tense period of not knowing whether her program would be suspended, Wilbourne has been able to stick to that plan despite the pandemic.

Wilbourne traveled 37 hours to reach Seoul, South Korea.

Wilbourne is studying at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul, South Korea, this fall. In so doing, Wilbourne boasts a number of “firsts.” First time she has left the country. First Elon student to study in South Korea since Elon established the exchange with SKKU last year. And, first Elon student to depart for her study abroad program this fall.

Another first for Wilbourne: quarantining. Before starting classes at SKKU, Wilbourne entered a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival to South Korea. Quarantine looks different everywhere – for Wilbourne, it meant staying put in a university dormitory, where her meals were delivered, including plenty of local junk food. She also was required to take and submit her temperature three times a day, reporting it on an app hosted by the South Korean government.

It has not taken long for Wilbourne to notice the differences between South Korea and the United States in COVID-19 rules and practices, and how culture plays a key role.

“Generally – I can only speak in generalizations – it seems that the Korean government is taking it a lot more seriously than the U.S. government. The mask mandates are enforced and they’re consistent, especially with all of the businesses I have seen firsthand. There is just such an emphasis on “collective responsibility” instead of “every man for themselves.”

Wilbourne shows off her SKKU-branded quarantine door seal to GEC staff.

At the conclusion of her quarantine, Wilbourne was allowed to move into the campus accommodations where she now lives among roommates. She also has access to SKKU’s Global Student Network: Help & Information Club (GSN HI-Club), which is a campus buddy program for international students. “They pair all of the international students with a Korean student, and they are available if I have any questions,” she said. “They are able to help me out with anything from learning about campus or just learning about living in Korea, so I think that it is a wonderful resource.”

This club has been a significant help for Wilbourne as all of the classes at SKKU are currently virtual.

Wilbourne in front of Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

While Wilbourne is embracing both the opportunities and the challenges of studying abroad during a pandemic, the experience almost didn’t happen for her. SKKU confirmed only a month before the projected start date that international students could study at their campus.

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)

When Wilbourne had to quickly step into action, she was supported in large part by Waller. “I would love to give the biggest shout out to Rhonda Waller,” she said. “She helped me figure out how to get my visa, kept in contact with SKKU, and made sure that I had the right vaccinations and paperwork in line. Also, when I was in quarantine, Rhonda constantly checked in with me through Zoom calls to make sure that I was adjusting well to Korea. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”

The view of Seoul from Naksan Park.

Waller, who oversees global engagement at Elon, advises for the SKKU program and was instrumental in building the exchange partnership last year.

As for the rest of Wilbourne’s time abroad, she hopes that various historical landmarks in South Korea will open for visitors soon and that she will be able to more meaningfully engage both in and beyond the classroom. As a Multifaith Scholar, Wilbourne is conducting research on “The Influence of Japanese Imperialism on Buddhist Seungmu Dance in Korea.” For her research, Wilbourne is mentored by Assistant Professor of Dance Casey Avaunt and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Pamela Winfield. She is tracking the various religious implications on this historical dance dating back to the fourteenth century. In the meantime, she is happy to be out of quarantine and safely exploring Seoul.

A view of Seoul at night, “showing the beautiful contrast in architecture between well-preserved ancient buildings and modern skyscrapers.”

Shanna Van Beek contributed to this article.  

Photos courtesy of Emily Wilbourne.