Monday, April 7, 2014

What are you doing next year?

The Question.
I've been mulling this over for a few months now and still have trouble answering.

I haven't talked about my future plans on this blog very much. In the past, this was because I didn't have any future plans. But I decided last year that I wanted to obtain a PhD in Linguistics, so I applied to graduate school programs in the fall. At this point, I've heard back from the six schools I applied to, and now, well, the silence about my decision stems not from the absence of plans but from simple reluctance to think about it.

You see, I do a lot of my thinking by writing. Without this blog, a lot of the thoughts I have day to day would never be processed. I like to get these thoughts out somehow, and making them public on this platform encourages me to be honest and straightforward about them. Does that sound counterintuitive? Surely a private journal would allow for more truth and less self-censorship. But what I mean is, I like to imagine that I have an audience, reading what I type here as if I'm telling them in person, so for their sake I can't write anything that I wouldn't say in a casual conversation... and for their sake I can and do write everything that I usually want to say in those situations.

The point is, I am at a moment in my life where I need to make a very big decision, and I feel unprepared to do so because I haven't thought about it enough. (And I haven't thought about it enough because I haven't blogged about it yet, see?)

The last two weeks have been busy and exhausting for various reasons. Right before I left for conference, I was feeling considerably 답답해, a unique sentiment to Korean culture that refers to the inability to say what one wants to say, the mentally suffocating discomfort that stems from not expressing one's true thoughts satisfactorily, or even just the confusion of not knowing what to say or think in a difficult situation. Due to my stress and uncharacteristic lack of sleep -- topping off a week of 4-to-5-hour nights with an all-night baking party of one -- I resolved to spend my time at the Fulbright Spring Conference getting as much rest as possible. In between napping and enjoying the wind and sun of Jeju Island, I thought that I'd also have the opportunity to ponder and pray about my future.

Fortunately, I did have time to do this over the weekend. Actually, I did not end up getting much sleep. There was also very little time in the schedule for personal introspection; I guess it was assumed that we ETAs would use our odd free hours for that... but I spent my free day conducting fieldwork. That's another story for another post. The important thing is that during the conference, I finally got to talk about my future plans with my friends, and that was when I finally began to get a clearer picture of what they might look like. So, I'm very thankful that going to the conference allowed me to process the ideas bouncing around in my head in a different, albeit obvious way: seeking my friends' input. Rather than writing things down and clicking a button to send them into the void, I simply sat and talked. I don't often just sit and talk anymore; isn't that a bit sad?

Anyway, now that I have returned from the conference, I figure it couldn't hurt to, once again, write things down and send them into the void. If you're interested in where I may possibly end up going for graduate school, read on.

The Applications.
My dream is to be a linguist. I want to work with endangered language communities and teach them how to use the tools they need to preserve and revitalize their language and culture. I don't know exactly how feasible this dream is, but it's where I began when I applied to various top Linguistics programs around the country. I set my bar particularly high: Stanford, Yale, MIT, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Santa Cruz. All six of these programs are very good and very difficult to get into, though not all necessarily focus on language documentation.

What I also found was important -- a bit to my own surprise -- was location. I felt like if I was going to spend another five to six years in school, I'd only be willing to do it in a city or region that I could thrive in. Hence the many schools in California. I'll admit it: as the winter chill set in and I wrote those neverending personal statements, I was pining for my home state and its perfect climate and food.

Almost absurdly soon, I heard back from Berkeley and SC! An offer of admission from the former in late January and an interview with the latter, which soon became a second offer of admission in early February. This was a fantastic way to begin my decision-making process, and I was optimistic. Alas, this y turned out to be a negative x, and in the week that followed, I bombed an interview with Yale and received two rather impersonal rejection letters from MIT and Stanford.

In mid-March, I learned that I'd been waitlisted at Yale (while a fellow Swarthmore linguist had been accepted, which likely slims my chances of getting in) and also received news of my funding packages for Berkeley and SC. Berkeley's is better, no question about it. Also, they somehow secured me an extra scholarship on top of the standard five years of full funding. UCLA remained oddly silent, and the suspense would have been unbearable had I not already learned from a friend there that my name was not to be found on the list of admited students. I found out just prior to leaving for the Fulbright Conference that I was waitlisted at UCLA.

The Dilemma.
So, that's where I was before my weekend retreat: 2 Yes, 2 No, 2 Maybe. Now, the question you'd think I'd be asking is, "Which will you choose, Berkeley or SC?" Actually, the question I began to ask myself -- weeks ago, even, after my late-February screwups and before I got any news on the funding front -- was, "Which will I choose, grad school or another year (1) in Korea?"

As soon as the semester began in early March and I resumed teaching, I realized that there are so many wonderful aspects of my life in Korea that I couldn't imagine giving up in a matter of months. I had just begun volunteering with North Korean defector students. I was beginning to get more involved in the expat community in Changwon, after a year and a half of being a quasi-hermit. I was really enjoying the work I was doing for the Fulbright Infusion, our literary magazine. All of these things I felt considerably more enthusiasm for than the distant prospect of furthering my own education. Also, I realized that my Castleberry research project on Jeju-eo was turning out to be a much bigger project than I'd imagined at first. Although I had to scale it down, I began to wonder why I couldn't just stay in Korea a bit longer -- maybe a year longer -- to continue my research uninterrupted. After all, the dictionary project is very much in the same line of work I dream of doing for a career.

Most importantly, when I went back to school and saw my students -- my old second- and third-years and a new crop of fresh-faced first-years -- I knew that leaving them in July would break my heart. When I mentioned to JH that I speak French and could teach her in her spare time, she excitedly said that it would have to wait until after she is finished with college applications in the fall. I didn't tell her that I might be gone by then.

And it's kind of a silly thing, but after my very first semester of teaching, back in 2012, one of my favorite students, truly a standout in her class, wrote me a note asking me to stay at their school until she graduated. This is an odd request, since normally, native English teachers at public schools don't stay longer than one year. Students get used to them cycling in and out in the middle of their school year. But I'm not quite normal; I've stayed for two years. And DH isn't quite normal, either, for a science high school student; while 90% of her classmates were awarded early admission to college last fall, she was not and is now completing the final months of her educational prison sentence. If I leave, I'll have to break the silent promise I made to her one year ago when I read her special note.

I'll admit it: I'm jealous for my students. I love them. I feel like I know them pretty well, and I like to think that I've had a positive impact on their lives, even if some of them still sleep in my class and write in their journals that they hate journaling. I couldn't bear leaving them, especially leaving them in the hands of another NET I don't know. But since I'll have to leave them eventually, what exactly is the difference between leaving this July and leaving next July?

Here's an analogous question: what exactly is the difference between entering graduate school this August and entering next August? As I considered my graduate school options and weighed them against renewing my Fulbright contract for the second and final time, I asked the graduate departments about my options for deferment. I am allowed to defer matriculation: that is, I can wait one year and enter without having to re-apply in 2015. However, I am not allowed to defer the funding I've been given, especially not the additional scholarship I received from Berkeley. Deferring for a year puts me back into limbo regarding money; I could get the same amount next year, or more, or less. It's a gamble.

Is it any surprise that in spite of all my feelings, my goals, and my desires -- or rather, in spite of all the careful consideration I'm putting into these abstractions -- it really is just going to boil down to the issue of money?

Who can walk away from such an amazing opportunity? I'm looking at you, Berkeley. The best public university in the country is willing to throw thousands of dollars at me so that I can become educated within its hallowed hipster halls. What fool chooses a low-paying, non-career-advancing, intellectually dissatisfying job any twenty-something with a bachelor's can do over that?

... But what fool willingly gives up living more freely and comfortably than he ever has before, yet growing, learning, and being stretched in many wonderful ways, developing precious and unforgettable relationships, and helping people's lives directly and tangibly every day... for an excuse to scurry back home and bury himself deep in books for five years?

The Discussion.
So here is where talking with my friends came in. I asked friends back home what they thought; I asked my old professors for advice; I talked to a lot of people here in Korea, too. More people than I expected to, since I was initially unwilling to divulge a lot of information to anyone who might inform my students that my time with them was now possibly limited.

It seemed that a lot of people from back home (2) were very supportive of my desire to stay in Korea, to continue doing what I love. After all, you're only young once. There's no hurry to move on to something different or more "adult" if where you are now is where you most strongly feel you should be. Even my Linguistics professor advised asking about deferment, along with the note that I'd spend my extra year continuing my self-directed research project.

On the other hand, most people I spoke to in Korea, including my fellow ETAs, other expat friends, and my Korean friends, took the opposite stance: why turn down all that money? An American education is expensive, and if you risk losing the scholarship, Korea might not be worth it. You may enjoy what you're doing now, but you shouldn't get too comfortable. (3) And at the very least, Korea isn't going anywhere: you can finish your studies and then come back.

"Why did you apply to graduate school in the first place," my Korean friend asked me, "if you didn't actually want to go?"

I do want to go, but the strength of that desire can wane, can't it? It's a little scary to consider how easy it is to make huge, life-changing decisions depending on an arbitrary lingering mood. If I had just had a string of crummy experiences in Korea, I'd probably be counting down the days until the end of my contract. But that mindset could just as easily be reversed by a classroom miracle, a completed bucket list item, or simply a day spent counting my blessings. Thus, it's all about the timing: when it comes time to make my decision by the deadline in mid-April next week, how much will I love Korea? How excited will I be about beginning graduate school? Which future will prevail in that moment?

The Decision.
I don't know. But I'm learning toward Berkeley.

Good night!

- - -
(1) Fulbright Korea uniquely allows its ETAs to renew their contracts two times. Most Fulbright commissions in other countries cap the grant duration at one year, maybe two. Three is the limit for us ETAs at Korean schools.
(2) The exception, of course, being that my family wants me home as soon as possible, especially my parents. They are extremely uncomfortable with how far away from them I've been for the past six years.
(3) Other factors that may take the luster out of a third year in Korea: our ETA contract is slated for some drastic and potentially unpleasant changes. Pretty much all of my Fulbright friends are leaving the country in July. Also, I miss going to a real church.


  1. Excited to have you back if you do choose Berkeley man!

    1. Thanks buddy. And thanks for reading all of that -- it only strikes me now how absurdly long this post is!

  2. Hi you! Just wanted you to know that I read this and am praying for you as you make this decision! I'm happy that you have two such wonderful options, although i know that makes it even harder to choose. Good luck!

  3. Tough decision. My advice would probably be to take the scholarship. I read your friend Dan's comments on facebook and I totally agree with his points. You can't predict what will happen in a year with your program, so you have to make your decision based on what's available now. And right now you have this amazing scholarship opportunity.

    In your blog post, you said "But what fool willingly gives up living more freely and comfortably than he ever has before, yet growing, learning, and being stretched in many wonderful ways..." and I would argue that this Berkeley scholarship does exactly what you're saying Korea does. Easing a financial burden enables you to live more freely and comfortably and you will stretched in certainly wonderful ways while you're in school.

    I don't think it's helpful to cast the discussion in terms of "be young and do fun things" vs "be an adult and go to school." These are sort of arbitrary designations of what young people should do and what adults should do. Grad school is just going on a different adventure! I don't really see it as settling into safe/comfortable adulthood.

    Also I just realized that you wrote this post over a week ago and you may have already made your decision.

    1. Good advice is timeless, Stephanie, so although I have made my decision, I'm grateful for your input all the same. You're completely right -- Korea is not the only place where I can grow and learn. I intend, of course, to continue growing and learning for my entire life, so it's silly to think that closing one great chapter in it will also close all the plotlines that are in it, so to speak.

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