Unemployed? Try South Korea

By Rachel Dougherty

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With graduation looming, student loans about to activate like time bombs, and the U.S. economy still in rehab, many American college graduates are seeking employment in an unlikely place: South Korea.

South Korea is quickly becoming one of the most popular destinations for American students seeking to teach English abroad after college. If you’ve visited Craigslist in the past year or so, you may have noticed an advertisement for Teach Abroad South Korea that pops up with almost every search. The advertisements are simple: great pay and accommodations, and no teaching experience necessary – all you need is an undergraduate degree and a willingness to relocate.

Rebecca, an American college graduate teaching in Seoul through a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship, says teaching English in South Korea can be a great experience for students looking to work and travel after college. Rebecca asked for her last name to be anonymous.

“The cost of living is good here, people are friendly and generous, and you will have a better shot at learning Korean than any other Asian language – it’s got an alphabet and it’s not tonal,” she said. “There is also a fairly large population of ‘foreigners’ – mainly English teachers – in Korea right now.”

According to a May 2010 GlobalPost.com article, there are more than 22,000 foreign English teachers living in South Korea. The majority of these teachers seem to be young college graduates from the United States.

“The Korean government wants their people to learn English,” says Caroline Gould, Assistant Director of Career Services at UMass. “They asked, ‘Who can we get to teach our citizens English for cheap?’ And they thought, ‘Aha, the Americans!’”

As South Korea continues to grow into its role as an Asian economic power, there is a mounting pressure for citizens to learn English in order to compete in the global economy. As a result, the Korean government has invested a lot of money in order to attract native English speakers to teach in the country’s schools. That’s why the deals for English teachers in South Korea are better than programs in almost any other country. In fact, only Saudi Arabia beats them out with an average yearly salary of $75,000 a year for English teachers.

Through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), teachers in South Korea can earn between 2 and 2.7 million won – about $1,700 to $2,300 – per month. Another popular program in South Korea, the English Program in Korean ( EPIK ), pays between 1.8 and 2.1 million won per month ($1,500-$1,800). Both programs provide free housing, paid medical insurance and vacation time, and some compensation for flight costs in and out of the country.

Of course, teaching English in South Korea is not without its risks. There’s the crime rate, the possibility of getting ripped off by the South Korean government, and, oh yeah, the threat of nuclear war between North and South Korea. Even with the benefits, is it safe for Americans in South Korea?

“First of all, I wouldn’t let fear over tensions between North and South Korea deter you from coming here,” Rebecca said. “I have found that these tensions have had a very minimal effect on my daily life and on the lives of my Korean coworkers, host family, etc.”

Her attitude was echoed by Eunkyul Claire Park, a South Korean citizen and former UMass international student.

“I understand that you’re somewhat worried about the political situations around here,” said Park. “No one can surely say about the situation right now, but actually most of the people doubt the possibility of war breaking out, or of a worse situation. Besides that, I’m sure you’ll have so much fun here.”

Even without the threat of war breaking out along the thirty-eighth parallel, there is still the possibility of being ripped off by the South Korean government. South Korean laws are not the same as U.S. laws, and if the deals they are offering sound too good to be true, well, sometimes they are. According to Gould, their government is known for sometimes going back on deals.

“They offer to pay your flight and housing if you agree to stay for 10 months,” said Gould, “then kick you out of the country on some pretense after nine months.”

There have also been cases in which teachers’ vacation time is not honored, particularly in the case of EPIK. If you want to avoid being scammed, it’s best to research the programs ahead of time. If you are interested in teaching abroad at all, be prepared to do a lot of your own research. UMass doesn’t have many resources on the subject – career services will give you the virtual tour of eRecruiting and some pamphlets, and the International Programs Office will only give you more pamphlets. The campus Work Abroad Fair was the best – their pamphlets had pictures and colored ink.

The best way to learn about teaching abroad is simply to talk to people who have done it and research the programs you want to participate in and the schools you want to work through. See you in Seoul.

Rachel Dougherty is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]