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My Student Experience: Brandon Hawkins ’21 Gained Global Perspective Through Study Abroad Experience in South Korea

When Brendon Hawkins ’21 began his freshman year at NC State, he went to the study abroad website and started an application. 

He had wanted to study abroad since he was 13, and he hoped college would be his chance. But despite opening the application, he wasn’t sure where to start, and as a first-generation college student away from home for the first time, he began to feel as if studying abroad wasn’t something he could do.

The unfinished application stayed up on the website, open, but not completed. Not until Hawkin’s senior year. Hawkins needed an extra semester to finish his bachelor’s degree in technology, engineering, and design education and, as the summer of 2021 approached, study abroad programs were just beginning to return.

One of the available options was South Korea, a country and culture Hawkins had always been fascinated by. He completed his application. Soon, his dream began to feel more real. 

“I found out that I got accepted into it, and then I was like, ‘OK, here’s where it gets crazy,” Hawkins said. 

In addition to the standard preparation for studying abroad—packing, planning, getting a passport—Hawkins would also have to navigate South Korea’s strict quarantine requirements.

When he and the other students on the trip arrived in Seoul, they took COVID tests and then were ushered to a hotel, where they spent the next two weeks in quarantine. The students weren’t able to leave and had meals delivered to them three times a day. There was TV and Wi-Fi — Hawkins said he spent a lot of time looking out the window, people watching.

“It was an interesting way to live,” Hawkins said. “My entire experience in South Korea was not even a month and a half. So then two weeks of it, that was in quarantine. And I still said yes to it.”

In quarantine, Hawkins also realized he needed additional financial support for his trip, so he got in touch with Ajaya Jonas, the NC State College of Education’s director of global programs. She helped him get the extra funding he needed.

“You never know who you can reach out to and what can happen,” Hawkins said.

He was grateful for the support, which made it possible for him to continue his study abroad experience. He didn’t want to miss his chance.

“There’s so many people who regret never going abroad, and they tell people, if you get a chance to go, go,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t want to live with that regret, especially because I’ve had that goal since I was young. At 22, I was already going on ten years of not doing that goal of mine. And so when I found out there was a South Korea program, I was like, ‘Yeah, I have to do this.”

In South Korea, Hawkins was introduced to a global community. The study abroad program was based out of Hanyang University in Seoul, where he stayed in off-campus housing with other international students. 

“One of my favorite parts was when everyone was out doing whatever they’re doing during the day and then toward nighttime everyone came back together in the kitchen and the living space and talked about what they did that day,” Hawkins said. “Some people traveled out to different parts of South Korea or some people had seen something crazy in the subway. And so we’d be playing music, eating food and just talking about things from our different countries.”

He remembers having to explain a gallon of milk to students from Germany and Belgium.

“They were confused because I kept saying a gallon, a gallon,” Hawkins said. “And then I had to realize, OK, not everyone uses a gallon.”

Hawkins also enjoyed getting to explore Korea and the way his classes, in international relations, documentary production and dance, allowed him to do that. 

One of his favorite experiences was getting to take a choreography class with the Korean studio 1MILLION. 

“The teacher teaches you the choreography and then you get to do it,” Hawkins said. “I was one of two foreigners in the class. And then the actual choreographers point at us and say go ahead, and then the camera crew comes out and they have all these lights. And I’m like, ‘This is getting pretty crazy.'”

In the documentary class, which counted as a digital media credit toward Hawkins’ technology, engineering, and design education major, he was able to fly with one of his professors to Jeju Island. There, he worked on a documentary about a massacre that occurred on the island in the late 1940s, and the documentary has been accepted into a number of international film festivals. 

“Making a documentary, with an actual professor who’s also a producer and director, in Korea, you can’t beat that,” Hawkins said. 

When Hawkins returned to North Carolina after his study abroad experience, he couldn’t wait to share his experience with others. So, when Jonas reached out to him about working in the College of Education’s global programs office during his final semester, he jumped at the opportunity. 

“Not everyone understands the power of global engagement and global involvement, especially on the education side,” Hawkins said. “It’s very important, and I can tell our college really supports that.”

Hawkins appreciated the opportunity to learn from Jonas and help inspire other College of Education students to engage in global experiences.

“”Working with her and getting that experience to give back to my college was very rewarding for me,” Hawkins said.

Since graduating in December, Hawkins has drawn on his experiences studying abroad and working with the college’s global programs office as he plans his next move. He’s been applying for jobs and keeping his options open.

“I realized that as long as I have faith in myself I can accomplish a lot, so that’s where I draw a lot of my power from when it comes to my experience,” Hawkins said.

And his advice for other students who are thinking about studying abroad?

“You have to do it,” Hawkins said. “You don’t want to have that regret. There’s going to be things you will learn about yourself and about the country you didn’t even anticipate. If you don’t go you’re not allowing yourself to get that experience.”