Fulbright grant to South Korea an immersive learning opportunity for Binghamton University alumna

Erica Cheung ’18 is a recipient of an English teaching assistantship grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program

Erica Cheung ’18 Image Credit: Erica Cheung.
Erica Cheung ’18
Erica Cheung ’18 Photography: Erica Cheung.

At the beginning of her senior year at Binghamton University, Erica Cheung ’18 stumbled upon a pamphlet that piqued her interest.

And now, just over a month since her senior year came to a close, she’ll be headed to South Korea for a year.

“This is crazy. I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she said.

Cheung is a recipient of an English teaching assistantship grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Only a handful of students from Binghamton University become “Fulbrighters” each year. Recipients stay with a host family while working and learning in another country.

“Fulbright was established after World War II to support grassroots diplomacy between American students, scholars and people from countries all around the world,” said Valerie Imbruce, director of the Office of External Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards.

“Fulbrighters open themselves up to new cultural experiences that impact their future careers and personal relationships.”

As someone who has always been motivated to learn about other cultures, Cheung hopes to do just that. A study abroad opportunity in Denmark during the summer after her sophomore year only strengthened that motivation.

“That experience changed my outlook of how wide the world is and how far I can go, and it really created this ambition to see more and learn from others,” said Cheung.

Cheung became a study abroad ambassador in the Office of International Education and Global Initiatives upon returning, and it was there that she saw a pamphlet promoting the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Even though she thought her odds of being awarded a grant were slim, the prospect of learning more about another culture from the ground level pushed her to apply.

When Cheung was notified just a couple months later that she was a semifinalist, she immediately put all of her post-grad plans on hold.

“I was literally waiting on this opportunity,” she said. “I didn’t want anything else.”

Learning from others

Cheung will be spending just over a year in South Korea, where she’ll be teaching English to either elementary or high school students. She’ll also take part in to-be-determined long-term projects and may have the opportunity to work with student defectors from North Korea.

Cheung, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1980s, said she began to develop an interest in Korean culture while attending middle school in Westchester County. Her interest was sparked after being exposed to K-Pop (Korean pop music).

“The music was very different, and I was fascinated not only by that but also by the clothes the artists wore and the way they spoke in different programs,” she said. “As I got older, I started to move away from just the music and the pop culture and started learning more about the language and the people.”

Her years of interest resulted in declaring a Korean Studies minor while attending Binghamton University. Cheung majored in business administration, with concentrations in marketing and supply chain management. She says her Binghamton education not only allowed her to explore areas she had deep interests in but to build her confidence, as well.

“One thing that I certainly learned in the School of Management is to speak up,” she said. “I’ve been encouraged by professors to be opinionated and to share those opinions and make my voice heard.”

In addition to speaking up, Cheung’s SOM classes also taught her how to speak up.

“Another skill SOM brought out of me is public speaking. As a teacher in South Korea, I’m going to be public speaking every day, so having that [skill] is going to make me a lot more comfortable with being in front of people and talking,” she said.

Cheung also served as a teaching assistant for an ESL (English as a second language) course, where she developed relationships with a number of international students.

“Our campus is very diverse, and we have a lot to learn from one another,” she said. “American students have a great ability and responsibility to not only share our culture with international students but to make them feel welcome and make the transition a little less difficult for them.”

Beyond the classroom, Cheung was very involved with the Binghamton chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an organization that encourages students of all backgrounds and beliefs to explore Christianity.

“My faith is certainly something that pushes me to do more,” said Cheung. “InterVarsity had the greatest impact on how I viewed my ability to make change on campus, as well as an impact on individual lives.”

Total immersion

In addition to Korean culture, Cheung is very passionate about the environment. She hopes to one day work in the field of green energy.

“The easy lifestyle is not a sustainable lifestyle. If we’re not going to take care of our environment, the next generation isn’t going to have anything left,” she said. “It’s important for me to find ways to make small adjustments to my lifestyle to be more sustainable and loving of this planet.”

Cheung was especially inspired by Denmark’s green energy practices, which she saw firsthand while studying abroad, and hopes to learn how South Korea promotes sustainability.

“I believe that Erica will immerse herself in this opportunity for cultural exchange and also use her academic and experiential knowledge to tackle global issues,” said Amber Jennings, an Education Abroad Advisor who worked closely with Cheung. “Erica will undoubtedly make the most of this experience with as great a desire to learn as to teach.”

Cheung will be headed to the Korean peninsula at a time when hardly a day goes by without North Korea being in the news. Cheung doesn’t find this intimidating.

In fact, she thinks now is the perfect time to go.

“Our world is becoming more and more globally intertwined. I think it’s important to learn to understand one another culturally and be open to other people’s opinions,” she said.

Cheung hasn’t been able to get this journey off her mind since finding out she made the cut this past spring.

“This will fulfill a dream I’ve been wanting to live out for such a long time, and this really is a blessing,” she said.

And while she still can’t believe this is actually happening, she doesn’t believe taking notice of that Fulbright pamphlet months ago was an accident.

“I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I think if an opportunity arises for you to do something to meet more people, take it and go with it.”