Oberlin Blogs

On the Way Home

January 1, 2023

Ben Smith ’24

As I write this, I’m on my flight back home from my semester in Seoul.

I knew leaving this place would not be easy, but my heart is filled with warmth. Within the warmth lies a feeling I’ve never felt before. 

Before I came to Korea, I felt in my heart that the experience would be life-changing, but I didn’t really know what “life-changing” meant–how it feels, how it exists in my day to day and in my big takeaways.

Now, I can describe exactly what life-changing feels like. 

Life-changing means feeling happiness; to see life in color, to experience saturated exuberance and pastel sincerity.  

It means feeling gratitude; to be embraced in the warmth and sweetness across all of life’s moments, big and small.

It means feeling loneliness; to be surrounded by people yet feel so far from them at the same time.

It means feeling confusion; to feel stranded without any understanding of what you see, hear, or experience.

It means feeling confidence; to believe in your being and your heart, regardless of the current or future uncertainty.

Life-changing means having success; to work hard for a goal and see the results realized.

It means having failure; to have to dust yourself off, regroup, and persist in spite of the difficulty.

It means having connection; not through a shared tongue, but through smiles, through gentle hugs, through generosity, through music, through the soft silence of shared sentiments.

It means having love; for others, for friends, for family, for friends who became family, for myself, for life.

Life-changing means crying; to cry out of frustration, to cry out of exhaustion, to cry for reasons I can’t find the words to describe.

It means learning; to be pushed out of comfort and into what will eventually be called growth.

It means smiling; inside and out.

It means living; fully and wholly.

Life-changing can come in an infinite number of shapes and sizes. The past four months have been filled with so many moments, and being present for all of them was a gift–that goes for all the amazing ones, all the awkward ones, all the unbelievable ones, all the beautiful ones. It was a journey from start to end. This is what life-changing is.

While this chapter may be closed, the fulfillment I found will not fade. To honor this time, I will carry these memories with me everywhere I go. The start of this next journey is filled with unknowns. I know before I began my time here, I would not have expected to leave this experience with a future that feels so… uncertain. But a life-changing experience does that–it brings change. Not only has my future changed, but the way in which I embrace it has changed, too. 

My reason for coming to Seoul was quite simple: I wanted to study music there. Many of my favorite flutists are from Korea, so I thought it would be an incredible experience to study with them if I could. This idea was compounded with my bucket-list desire to be an exchange student and my interest in Korea in general. I also thought, if I can be an exchange student in Korea, perhaps I could consider further study there post-undergrad. So, the plan to study abroad in Korea was tacked onto my mental vision board. 

As it turned out, this goal was realized. However, it is easy to romanticize studying abroad for the first time. During my time as an exchange student in Seoul, I questioned everything. Why did I do this? Will this be worth it? Am I in over my head? It was the first time I was living in a new country for an extended period, so naturally things were difficult, but I never expected to doubt my resolve. There were obstacles in and outside of school, yet I found the most nerve-wracking obstacle to be explaining my "why": why I chose to study abroad, why Korea, why my particular university. I had written entire essays on this very subject, yet when it came to actually speaking with other music students or professors or even friends, I felt the question to be overwhelming. I worried that I would not get out of this experience what I hoped, and I was scared to admit that. This fear always came up the first few times I was asked my "why."

The only way I regained composure was accepting that I had no idea what this experience would bring–all the planning, all the goals I had, all the essays I wrote–everything I thought I knew had to take a back seat. My primary objective was to take each day as it came and figure out what it all meant later. When I saw each day as an opportunity, the way I lived changed. I was no longer bombarded by the stress of living in a new place with a new language. I no longer worried about what my life would be like at the end of this adventure. I was just present, open, and after a few weeks of this, the happiest I have ever been.

Learning to be present changed my days in Seoul. Things were still hard sometimes, but facing these challenges with mindfulness was empowering. Eventually, I was achieving everything I had initially set out on: meeting my favorite flutists, making friends from around the world, investigating what future study in Seoul would look like–it all came with time. With that said, I am unsure when I will return back to Korea. I am still interested in graduate studies there, but it will take more time to navigate this path. All I know is that I want to return one day... and I hope that day is soon. 

In the meantime, I have thousands of pictures and videos as well as some cherished letters and gifts to look back on. Here are a few of my favorites. 

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