Episode 67 │ Becoming More Than Strangers (BRAZIL/S. AFRICA/VIETNAM)
"It was the first time where I understood that language is powerful, but so is everything else when you communicate with somebody." (YeSeul, Episode 67)
As I sit to write this, I'm realizing that this is the very last episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad for the summer. By the time the next episode comes out in two weeks, it will officially be fall! So this week we're closing out the summer with YeSeul Kim! YeSeul has a background in urban planning and business, and she's been exploring multiple storytelling projects in her current home of Italy. One of those projects is a podcast called Serendipity Stories, where she talks to people about moments of serendipity that have greatly impacted their lives. YeSeul's fascination with serendipity and human connection grew as a result of her experiences studying in Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam. She emailed me in July after I put out a feeler for new guests in a certain Facebook community (you know the one), and I had the pleasure of listening to her tell me about it all.
Born in South Korea, YeSeul grew up with her family on the island of Guam. They later moved to Montgomery County, Maryland where she attended middle and high school. Guam is an American territory but YeSeul actually didn't know much about the U.S. aside from certain pop culture references. Consequently, she faced major cultural adjustments in addition to missing the tropical aspects of home ("Where are the palm trees? Where are my coconuts? Where's the beach?"). And while she used to travel throughout Asia with her parents when they lived in Guam, her parents' work commitments in Maryland meant that she rarely left the Washington, D.C. area. So YeSeul focused on her academics and extra-curricular activities, aware of the importance of becoming the first person in her family to got to college, and also hoping that college would "open up more opportunities to travel, to look beyond just the day-to-day". She had the option of studying international development at Georgetown University but felt that it'd be too close to home, so she instead moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study urban planning and international development at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
One of YeSeul's main goals was to travel as much as possible on her university's dime, no matter how tempting it was to stay in the MIT "bubble" where students were accustomed to having world-renowned experts come to them in the Boston area. YeSeul went to Mexico and France through a program called MISTI, which arranges international internships for MIT students. She also took classes that had components in Florence and Panama. But even all that wasn't enough for her, so she looked for semester or year-long programs that she could do. YeSeul eventually heard through the grapevine about the International Honors Program (IHP), organized by the School for International Training. (This is the same program that Stacy from episode 28 did.) Through IHP, YeSeul went abroad in 2009 for the spring semester of her junior year, spending five weeks each in Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam. She and the 34 other participants in her group studied various topics including urban planning, anthropology, and environmental sustainability.
The group started in Brazil, where they split their time between the megacity of São Paulo and the smaller eco-friendly city of Curitiba. Their activities in South Africa were centered around Cape Town, where they stayed in a multi-cultural neighborhood called Bo-Kaap and a majority Black township called Langa. And then in Vietnam, they spent most of their time in the capital city of Hanoi and also visited the well-preserved town of Hoi An. While YeSeul was amazed by the stunning settings she found herself in, as an extrovert she was even more enthralled by the people she met. Homestays in each country were part of the program, and YeSeul fortunately made meaningful connections with almost all of her host moms. Even chance encounters with strangers on the street or at parties would turn into something wonderful.
Staying in the moment truly made the difference during this semester, especially since the group moved around so much and connecting with folks back home was touch and go—the lack of instantaneous communication methods in 2009 meant that they had to rely on letter-writing, internet cafes, and phone cards. And there were some moments during the trip that left profound impressions on YeSeul. During our conversation she mentioned keeping a diary where she listed her "top 20 craziest moments", and while riding an ostrich was one of them, a collision in South Africa likely topped that list. A friend and classmate named Jo was hit by the drunk driver of a minibus on her way to class. YeSeul didn't witness the accident because she was admittedly playing hooky, but she couldn't help but wonder what might've happened if she'd walked with Jo to class that day. Jo eventually made a full recovery, but while contemplating the brevity of life in the hospital, she decided to change her career plans in a major way. YeSeul took note of this.
The accident—along with randomly meeting her "birthday twin" (same day, month, and year) on a visit to Cape Town during grad school—got YeSeul fascinated with examining serendipity and telling human stories. When describing serendipity to me, she said it's something that happens to us all the time. "It's when life happens to you. Right? Even if you're the best planner." She started off this creative exploration by making a web series called Sense of the City, and eventually launched the Serendipity Stories Podcast in 2020.
"You'll always have that moment"
For YeSeul, the Boston area is home. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in urban planning from MIT, and her career took place in Boston. However, today she lives in Treviso, Italy with her husband and their dog named Alpus. Her husband's job had them moving from Boston to Rome less than two years ago, and they've been living in Treviso since September 2019. At first YeSeul thought the historic town was incredibly boring ("I'm a world traveler. What am I doing here?"). Of course, she had no idea what 2020 would have in store. When the coronavirus swept through Italy and Treviso was among the first areas to be locked down, YeSeul yearned for excitement and human connection more than ever. That's where Serendipity Stories came in, along with a photojournalism project called Humans of Treviso. Her friend photographs each featured person and YeSeul interviews them. This helps her practice her Italian and also avoid having to wait ten years to meet people in this conservative town where seemingly, "you only know people if you've been here forever".
YeSeul remembers her semester abroad fondly and credits it with helping her become more grounded, learn how to solve problems, and have the confidence to connect with strangers. Even if relationships formed while traveling don't last, it doesn't make them any less worthwhile. In her words, "You'll always have that moment." For now, she's taking advantage of the opportunity to know Italy better. She and her husband have been exploring small towns in their region, and when we spoke in July she was looking forward to them taking a two-week biking trip through Fruili Venezia Giulia in August (with Alpus too!). YeSeul can be reached at yeseulmkim.com, and her dog can be found on Instagram (@alpusofthealps). Serendipity Stories can be found on serendipitystories.co, Instagram (@serendipitystories.podcast), and Facebook (Serendipity Stories Podcast).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Becoming More Than Strangers (BRAZIL/S. AFRICA/VIETNAM)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Global MIT (includes study abroad)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.