Ellen Swicord already knows some of the things she loves about South Korea, where she will live this summer.
“Korean chocolate is amazing and Korean ice cream is to die for,” she said.
The 17-year-old Webster Groves student will spend six weeks in South Korea, immersing herself in the language and the culture.
The senior-to-be at John Burroughs School in Ladue is traveling there as part of a State Department program aimed at promoting the study of languages not typically taught in American schools.
This is her second extended trip to South Korea.
Two years ago she spent three weeks there as a junior counselor at an English immersion camp for Korean students, the Camp Fulbright Junior Internship Program.
“I’m really excited,” Swicord said. “I’ll probably get more nervous as I get closer to it but since I’ve already been there I’m not as nervous about the food and other cultural things.”
Swicord was awarded a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship. The program was launched by the U.S. government in 2006 to help create a cadre of young Americans skilled in international dialogue.
Program organizers say young people with experience in foreign languages and cultures are highly sought by universities, government agencies and businesses intent on competing effectively in the global economy.
The program sends hundreds of high school students each year to countries where Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Russian and Turkish are spoken. Swicord’s scholarship will pay all of the costs of her six-week trip.
She leaves later this month for an orientation at Columbia University in New York, then travels to Seoul with about 40 other American students.
Swicord, who has studied Mandarin Chinese for two years and Latin for five, knew no Korean before her first trip to that country. After daily classes there in the Camp Fulbright cultural exchange program, she had a bit more.
“I know phrases and words and I can generally understand the gist of what people are saying to me,” she said. But she said that after two weeks in Korea this summer, she will be expected to rely totally on Korean.
“After two weeks, no English,” she said.
Swicord’s mother is in awe of her daughter’s adventurous side.
“I’m just really excited for her,” Dorothy Swicord said. “I just think it’s really great for her to have a passion this early in life.”
Swicord said her interest in Asian cultures was sparked by the diverse group of friends she made at Burroughs. One friend’s family is Chinese; others are from families that are Korean, Indian and Ethiopian.
Last summer she traveled to China for a two-week program sponsored by the Confucius Institute at Webster University. Over spring break this year she traveled with Latin classmates to Rome and Naples.
Swicord said she hoped to study abroad in college and may major in international business and attend law school.
In Korea she expects to spend four or five hours each morning learning the language in classes at Sogang University. Afternoons will be spent learning about the culture through field trips and seminars on topics such as taekwondo, Korean drumming and cooking.
When she first went to Korea she was as unfamiliar with the food as she was with the language. But she has learned to love most of it (well, perhaps not seaweed soup for breakfast.)
“I do like the food,” Swicord said. “It takes a little getting used to because it’s super spicy.”
In St. Louis, she and her family frequent a Korean restaurant and market in St. Louis County.
Her favorite treat might be Korean ice cream – or potbingsu – which she described as vanilla frozen yogurt mixed with red beans and fruit and served on a bed of ice.
“It’s so good,” she said.
Just don’t feed her seaweed soup for breakfast.