Top Scholars Talk: Senior Sheila Park on being a Gilman Scholar in South Korea

Tags: Study Abroad, Gilman Scholarship, East Asia

Sheila Park (right) with a friend in Gangneung, Gangwon-do, South Korea

September 29, 2015

Sheila Park, a recent University of Illinois alumna, majored in Advertising and minored in Teaching English as a Second Language, and recently completed a prestigious Reuss Fellowship with the University of Illinois Foundation.  During the summer of 2014, she spent seven weeks studying Korean language and culture at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.  Her study abroad trip was funded by the Gilman Scholarship for International Study

The Gilman Scholarship aims to diversify the kinds of students who study and intern abroad by offering awards to U.S. undergraduates who might otherwise not participate due to financial constraints and other factors such as field of study, disabilities, or family obligations.  Applicants must be U.S. citizens receiving the Federal Pell Grant.  The next deadline is October 6, 2015 for Summer 2016 (early applications) and Spring 2016 study abroad programs.  For assistance with the Gilman application, please contact us at

Sheila recently shared her Gilman experience with us:

Tell us about how you decided to study abroad.

Studying abroad, especially in Korea, was always in the back of my mind when I entered college.  I didn’t really consider it until my sophomore year.  Originally, I wanted to go in the spring semester of my junior year, like many students do.  But then, I hesitated and got scared…I didn’t really ask for recommendation letters early enough, and another year went by.  But eventually, I started looking at the application again.  I met with a study abroad advisor and went over the procedures to apply.  After break, I asked for recommendation letters, and I was just like, “OK!  I’m going to stop hesitating,” and I went for it.

Were you looking at South Korea exclusively, or did you have to narrow down a list of potential countries?

Pretty much just South Korea, but for South Korea, Illinois offers two different exchange programs: Yonsei University and Korea University.  I talked to different people who had studied abroad in Korea, and many of them had had a good experience at Yonsei.  So, that really helped me to decide to go to Yonsei.  Korea was the place I wanted to be, because my extended family was over there, and it’s my ‘home country’ in a way, and it was just a matter of picking the right university.

What sorts of things did you write about in your Gilman personal statement?

You definitely need to discuss how you can grow personally, professionally, and culturally from your study abroad experience.  I talked about how I have family over there, and I could learn a lot from spending time with them, and how interacting with native Korean speakers would give me the chance to achieve bilingual fluency.  I’ve been thinking about maybe teaching in Korea after graduating, so this was a nice opportunity to check out the education environment there, how things are done, and it was just perfect for me in all ways.  I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else, when Korea offered me all of these chances to learn new things, and to grow, and so those were the sorts of things I discussed in my essay.

And how did you connect the program in Korea to your field of study and longer-term career goals?

My minor is teaching English as a Second Language, so it tied in to my plans to explore South Korea as a place to potentially live and teach.  Also, there’s stuff I’ve learned from majoring in advertising.  Advertising opened my eyes to how minority groups and other cultures are making their voices heard.  That’s why I’d like to do teaching—I want to reach out to the underprivileged communities and help them, maybe volunteer teaching English as well.  The educational system in Korea is very, very structured and also really, really competitive.  I think you have to have the financial resources to be able to succeed.   A lot of these students go to private academies, and their parents dish out tons of money to send them to English schools and enroll them in extracurricular activities, so I talked in my personal statement about how someday I want to help students who don’t have the resources for that.

Of course, with the Gilman Scholarship, there is also the follow-on service project, in which you promote study abroad and the Gilman program to others. How did you come up with your ideas for that?

I’m part of this organization called Illinois Promise, which helps low-income students offset the cost of education by providing scholarships and additional grants.  Around the time that I was looking into study abroad, I attended an info session where an I-Promise student presented on the Gilman Scholarship.  When he said that there’s a follow-on project and he was speaking to I-Promise students for that, because they’re all Pell Grant eligible, I knew that that would be perfect for me.  I’m part of I-Promise, and I’m super-invested in it, because it has helped me in so many ways.  It’s allowing me to be able to attend college and to graduate debt-free.  So, to be able to give back to that community and tell them that studying abroad is actually possible—they’re all scared about how they’re going to pay for it, but there is something amazing like Gilman out there, and you can receive the funds to help you achieve your goals.

The funding is crucial for so many students.  Did you also find intrinsic benefits in the process of applying for a nationally competitive scholarship like the Gilman?

I would say so.  All my thoughts and plans for studying abroad were sort of jumbled and all over the place, and it definitely helped me piece everything together, and have one clear, concise vision on paper.  It also pushed me to apply for other scholarship programs as well, and be able to clearly say what I hope to learn during my study abroad, and how going to this specific country is going to help me.

What was your coursework like at Yonsei University?

It was interesting when I took the Korean pop culture class, we covered films and TV and music, and related them to contemporary issues in society.  Stuff that I never really thought about here in the US, because I would listen to it for enjoyment, but I didn’t really delve below that or think about the bigger picture.  It was nice to see how those things affect Koreans, and how they could affect me if I go back. 

The language course was really intense!  It met for three hours, four days a week, and so we covered a ton of material, and I learned a lot from that too.  I was conversationally proficient enough that I could communicate with my uncle over there just fine.  I speak Korean with my parents a lot at home, and I watch a lot of Korean movies, so listening and speaking weren’t so difficult for me.  Reading and writing is where I grew the most.  I remember on the first day of class, we had to read this passage from the workbook, and I struggled so much to read my couple sentences.  But, at the end of the term, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Sheila, you got a lot better!”   So, it was challenging—I had to put a lot of work into it—but it was also very rewarding, because I got so much out of it.

That’s great! And, did you feel more American there, or were you regarded more as a Korean person? What kinds of insights did you gain into your identity?

It’s always hard being bicultural, because I feel like Koreans expect me to know everything about American culture.  On the other hand, I feel like I am also expected to be Korean, and to know all these different values and beliefs that they have that I didn’t really know before.  For example, Korea follows a very hierarchical kinship system, where you show a lot of respect to elders.  Which I sort of knew, but I didn’t really know how much it was emphasized over there.  I guess in some ways, I felt more American because I wasn’t used to all these things, but I felt Korean compared to all the other American study abroad students.  I could speak the language, and I already knew which Korean foods I liked, things like that.

Do you still hope to return to Korea, now that you’ve had this experience there?

Yes!  That was one of the main things—after graduating, I was thinking about teaching abroad, but I was like, can I actually live in this country for a year or more?  I mean, I’m Korean[-American], but I was thinking, this society has different values, beliefs, and ideas.  But when I went over there, I didn’t have any troubles, so I was like, “OK, I could do this for a year or two!”

What would you like to share with other students who want to be Gilman Scholars?

Really have a passion for why you want to go study abroad, outside of the typical cliché reasons, like “I want to go see the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”  Be able to connect your personal values with things abroad, and how they will help you grow professionally and personally.  How will you expand on your skills while abroad and then bring them back to the US and continue to grow?