IST students experience tech, culture and personal growth in exchange program

Jessica Hallman
October 18, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Home to global companies like Samsung and LG, South Korea has come a long way technologically since the mid-1980s. Today, it boasts the world’s highest internet speeds and most cellphone users, and is therefore often thought of as one of the most innovative countries on the planet. Now, thanks to an exchange program between the College of Information Sciences and Technology and Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul, South Korea, Penn State students are finding innovative opportunities 7,000 miles across the globe.

“If you want to be in the tech field, Korea is a great place to make connections,” said Kieran Ohliger, a 2017 alumnus who was one of the first College of IST students to study at SKKU through the program.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Ohliger said that temporarily moving across the globe was out of character for him.

“Being in Korea really forced me out of my comfort zone in a good way,” he said. “I tried my best to say yes to new experiences, and it really paid off.”

One of those experiences was a connection with Sam Oh, SKKU’s director of library sciences, who connected Ohliger with an internship with the Seoul City Government’s data science division. He completed the internship the following summer.

“I wouldn’t have gotten my internship without the connections I made while abroad, and I wouldn’t have gotten my job without my internship experience,” said Ohliger, who now works as an IT consultant at CGI. “It looks great to put your experience in Korea on your resume.”             

IST - SKKU 2

College of IST alumni Kieran Ohliger, back row, fourth from left, and Nathan Vella, back row, third from right, enjoy a picnic with Korean students along the Han River in South Korea. 

IMAGE: Provided

In addition to providing students with the opportunity to study at one of the highest-ranking higher education institutions in South Korea, the program gives students a starkly contrasting experience from Penn State.

“We are a big university in a small rural town,” said David Reitter, associate professor of information sciences and technology and coordinator of the program. “SKKU is a small, elite university in a big city.”              

According to Reitter, the program is open to any Penn State student, but it is uniquely designed for data sciences and IST majors. There are a number of courses where students in those majors can earn credits at SKKU.

Reitter drew on his own international experiences when he helped to launch the program at Penn State, which is now in its third year. Born in Germany, he has lived in four different countries and has spent extended periods of time in other places, including Korea, where he’s taught summer courses at SKKU since 2015. He wants participating students to get a full cultural experience through the program.             

“It’s important for students to see something very different than what’s here,” he said. “Culturally, Korea is a very different experience. You’re in a different society with a different language, but it’s very comfortable and safe.”

Nathan Vella, a 2016 Penn State alumnus who studied in Seoul at the same time as Ohliger, gained personal growth and independence through his exposure to those differences.               

“This experience taught me to really rely on myself and how to solve problems by myself,” said Vella. “I believe that independence is at the core of my academic and professional career.”

Vella, who is now a technology consultant and software engineer at EY, said that the experience also gave him the confidence to move to New York City after graduation. He felt fortunate to immerse himself not only in a big city like Seoul, but also in the culture.              

“Koreans are very proud of their culture, and SKKU really tried to integrate as much of that into the program as possible,” he said. “They knew participants were interested in their studies, but the school’s goal was to fully immerse students in the culture, and I am very grateful for that.”

Ohliger encourages students to consider the study abroad experience as part of their college career, as the benefits can be far reaching and lifelong.

“I believe any exchange program will be what you make of it,” he said. “You will grow as a person no matter where you go, and many of the lessons I learned while abroad are not specific to my field.”

Editor’s note: Applications are now being accepted for the fall 2019 study abroad program in Seoul. Students interested in the SKKU exchange program can learn more at ist.psu.edu/korea. With the SKKU program being a success, the College of IST is exploring similar study abroad programs for IST students.

Last Updated October 21, 2018