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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stranger in a strange land


Dec. 26 (Jeju Weekly) When graduate student Iskandar Makhmudov arrived at Jeju National University in February 2008, it was to begin his first long stint of living away from his home country of Uzbekistan.

“It was not so easy at the beginning,” he said, to come to a new country where he needed to cope with language and cultural difficulties while also undertaking an intensive course of study in renewable energy technologies.

“There were many cultural events at the university for Korean students,” he said, “they’re organized, they’re very active. But the situation with foreign students was vice versa. Definitely, foreign students could also join but there was no information about how to join.”

Makhmudov could have simply accepted the situation as it was, but instead took it upon himself to unite the existing small informal groups of foreign students under the banner of the Jeju National University International Students Organization, or JISO (www.jiso.or.kr). Founded in March of this year, JISO’s mission is twofold: “to promote the well being of international students” at JNU and to support “interaction and under-standing between international students at Jeju National University and the people of Jeju, Korea.”

The organization has around 15 active members, Makhmudov said, from Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, France, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan. There are a further 250 foreigners on a mailing list, the majority of whom are from China. JISO has hosted about 12 events so far this year, including its members working as volunteer guides for a trip to Jeju Dinosaur Park with a local orphanage, and joined members of the Korean Graduate Students Association to walk an olle trail. The group also has an early New Year’s party planned on Dec. 23 before most students go home for the end of year break.

Makhmudov said that for his first few months on Jeju, it was difficult to overcome his feelings of homesickness, which were amplified by the language barrier and cultural difficulties.

“When someone comes to another country, usually they first try to find their country members or some other close social group. In my case my communication with people during that time was very limited. But after some time at Jeju National University and on the island, I met many nice people who helped me to adapt to my new place for two years.”

In his role as foreign students’ representative, Makhmudov described existing social problems he identified at the university.

“One example is the registration system for courses and other administrative services, which are all in Korean. It creates some difficulties for international students with a low level of language proficiency.” An added problem for students from Islamic countries is the lack of a mosque on the island or even a prayer room at the university. “In addition, the University canteen menu is not always compatible or acceptable for them.”

Such problems are not specific to Jeju National University but found at most universities across Korea, he said. However, it can simply be a matter of mutual intercultural understanding to find a compromise, and he has found this with his fellow graduate students.

“When going out with a group of lab mates,” Makhmudov said, “they already know that this person doesn’t drink, this person doesn’t eat pork.”

He said the university tries to help, for example by supporting students with health insurance refunds and holding events for students during the year, but international students would like to see more concrete decisions aimed at improving their social life from the university administration.

Makhmudov has enjoyed his time in Jeju, which is scheduled to end in February.
“Korean life has taught me to be more independent -- I grew up a lot during this period,” he said. “I can say that if to compare before and after, my viewpoint to the same things also changed extremely. This experience made me confident in my ambitions and I strongly believe it will be useful in my further endeavors.”

He believes JISO will continue to grow and that the organization will make life easier and more enjoyable for international students in their temporary home.

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