The journey from soldier to student
Editor’s note: Paris Norris is a former soldier turned student who is studying in Korea. She will chronicle her time on the peninsula in Stripes Korea and on Korea.Stripes.com.
It was finally happening. I had been dreaming about going to South Korea for the past seven years. And then on Aug. 22, I boarded flight 211 nonstop from San Francisco to Seoul. My Korean adventure was about to begin.
My first taste of Korean culture was introduced to me in my hometown of Shreveport, La. I was working as a hostess at a Japanese bar and grill, which was ironically owned and ran by Koreans.
Every night after closing, the head chef would whip up the most delicious meal my taste buds had ever sensed. The spicy and salty foods that were presented to me were reminiscent of the Cajun food I had grown up on, except, I was able to digest these foods without needing to nap first.
Immediately, I was hooked. I needed to know more. I began to inquire with my manager about the native tongue she so often spoke with our other Korean colleagues. It was there, at Tokyo’s Steakhouse, that I first learned how to give a greeting in the Korean language.
Though my time at Tokyo’s was short-lived, I was so heavily influenced by my Korean co-workers, that I began my pursuit of visiting their home country, South Korea.
Welcome to Georgia
I joined the United States Army in 2009, with the hopes of being stationed in or around Seoul. Among other reasons, this was a key point in my decision to enlist.
I was assigned a job in the intelligence field and was told that the possibility of my being stationed in South Korea was very high. Unfortunately, the possibility had not been high enough, which I eventually learned was the case with many assignments from Uncle Sam. I remained in the Southern depths of the United States for the remainder of my contract.
Most of my service time was spent in Augusta, Ga., at Fort Gordon. Every day after evening formation, I would journey to Seoul via the Internet. It was there, in Augusta, that I made my discovery of Kpop and the Hallyu wave.
Despite the denial of my numerous requests to be stationed in Seoul, I held on to my dream and became even more determined to live in South Korea. I had gone from wanting to visit for a few weeks, to wanting to live for a few months or even a year. But, after suffering a severe back injury, I deemed unfit for military duty.
As I was out-processing, I began to research universities that offered study abroad options. Another major reason for my enlistment was the stupendous education benefits offered to military members serving on active duty.
I had been taking a few online classes, but when I joined the Army, I had two goals: To go to South Korea and to achieve the highest level of education that my brain could tolerate at a prestigious, nationally recognized university.
I ultimately decided to apply to the University of Denver in Colorado, as I had visited many friends stationed at Buckley Air Force base, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I had spent in Denver.
Another major selling point for the University of Denver was their study abroad program, which they boast is one of the greatest benefits of being a student there. They offer numerous programs and are affiliated with schools in over 40 countries all around the world, including South Korea.
Dream becomes reality
Everything I’ve been waiting for has led me here. There are no words to express the emotions I began to feel as the captain announced in both Korean and English that our flight would be landing at Incheon airport in 10 minutes.
Despite enjoying the wonderful Korean cuisine that was served on the flight (they feed you really well on those flights, I ate almost every two hours), it had not yet set in that my dream was becoming reality.
How did I get here? I went from a working civilian to an Army soldier, and now a student studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul. The help that I am receiving due to my veteran status is, perhaps, the largest factor in how I was able to attain funding to study both at Yonsei and Denver University.\
I have been happily using my G.I. Bill for the past two years. I also took it upon myself to extensively research scholarships available for Army veterans. There are too many to mention in this article alone. The help is out there. Everything is possible.
I, like too many of my fellow comrades, experienced a time where I felt as though there was no hope for transitioning military members. There’s a lot of information and resources available, but no thorough guidance as to where to obtain said resources and information.
Thankfully, my ulterior motives for enlisting fed the research bug I didn’t know was living inside me. Sadly, that is not the case for many members that I know who are now struggling to take their first steps into the civilian world.
Sure, everyone knows about the G.I. Bill, but do they know how to begin the process to get their benefits issued to them? I’ve also heard too many comrades who are “going to get their degree,” but what about their experience? What about their desires, their dreams?
I know many soldiers were fortunate to be stationed in other countries, but were they able to experience the life and culture in those countries? As my former NCOIC used to say, “the work of a soldier is never done.” I barely had time to explore the Augusta. I can only imagine the difficulty of achieving cultural immersion in another country, while at the same time being an active-duty soldier.
That is the point of all this. I am sharing my experience, with the hopes of inspiring others to go out and create their own experiences. I am inviting you, the readers, to study abroad with me. Seoul is one of the most exciting cities in the world! Though I am a full-time student, I will be exploring every chance I get. Won’t you join me?
Education and Travel Correspondent
Born and raised in northern Louisiana, Paris is an Army veteran and Strategic Communications major at the University of Denver in Colorado, currently studying and living in Seoul, South Korea. Her interest in the Korean culture began at age 17, two years prior to enlisting in the U.S. Army, and her desire to learn the Korean language remained incessant so that she decided to study abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul. This being her final and fourth year as an undergraduate, Paris really wanted to push the limits of her education beyond continental and cultural boundaries. She hopes to inspire fellow veterans and soldiers all over the world to look inside of themselves and seek out and fulfill all their aspirations.