Center for Curriculum Transformation

University of Washington
Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity


Korean Culture, Immigration, and Health

by Eunjung Kim, Associate Professor, School of Nursing

Program Overview

The study abroad program, Korean Culture, Immigration, and Health, provided opportunities for University of Washington (UW) students to study factors influencing the behavior and health of ethnic minority populations using comparative experiences of Koreans and Korean Americans as an example. It was offered as an Exploration Seminar for three weeks in August-September 2008, through the School of Nursing and the College of Arts & Sciences. The program presented a broad and diversified look at cultural ideologies of heritage and mainstream cultures, immigration and the acculturation process, social and health behaviors, family issues such as intergenerational cultural conflict, and health disparities. The seminar used the perspectives of nursing, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to help students understand the complexities of caring for ethnic minority populations.

Korean Culture, Immigration, and Health Participants

There were 15 student participants in the program and one advisor whose participation was financed by an award from the UW. There were 12 women, 13 students of color, and two first generation college students. Two students were members of a sorority, and one was a member of a fraternity. Their ages ranged from 18 to 56, and their status ranged from freshman to a matriculated student who was preparing for a graduate school. Thirteen different major areas of study were represented. One student had completed two previous study abroad programs. I am a first generation Korean American female professor in the School of Nursing.

Korean Culture, Immigration, and Health Curriculum

The program consisted of two components: a pre-departure online learning course during summer quarter 2008 and an in-country experience between summer and fall quarters.

Pre-departure—Online Learning: During the pre-departure online learning course, I assigned articles and book chapters that addressed the course learning goals and concepts. I required students to make two postings a week after reading the assignments: one, a response to the article, and two, a response to one or more of their colleagues' comments. After the online learning course, students developed a research plan with three parts: (1) a description of a social or health issue in the United States, (2) a description of the same issue in Korea, and (3) a list of 5 to 10 questions that they would like to explore while in Korea.

In-Country Experience: During the in-country experience, we visited two major hospitals, a clinic offering Korean oriental medicine, a free clinic operated by medical and nursing students at the Catholic University of Korea, and a pharmaceutical company. Students paired up with Korean students who attended the College of Nursing at the Catholic University of Korea. We heard five lectures from Korean scholars and care givers on the Korean health care system, care-giving, parenting, and depression and dementia management. I presented on Korean culture and the health of Korean immigrants. In addition, we learned about Korean cooking, folk art, and crafts.

The students lived together in a traditional Korean house. We had frequent and intensive interactions among ourselves throughout the stay due to the living arrangements. In addition, we held two to three reflection sessions per week to debrief about the lectures, program experiences, and group dynamics. Every student helped lead a group reflection focusing on relaxation and meditation, community-building and get-to-know-you exercises, and on sharing experiences of places and activities.

Bringing the Work Home: In their final presentation, I asked students to discuss what they learned from the literature they read pre-departure and from three weeks of living experiences in Korea. Students’ presentations also addressed how they would apply this new knowledge to interactions with the Korean immigrant population in the U.S.

Major Challenges: Diversity and Safety

The major challenges that I confronted as group leader were raised by the diverse composition of the group and the conduct of individual members, I also worked to tie the lessons that students learned through their reading and experience abroad to the Korean immigrant population in the United States. Some of the challenges and the actions that I took to resolve them are listed below.


  1. Building a sense of community among students coming from different age, gender, ethnic, cultural, regional and disciplinary backgrounds
  2. Helping students stay safe and healthy, including preventing excessive drinking
  3. Managing formation of a couple
  4. Helping students apply what they learned in online learning and in Korea to the Korean immigrant population

Response to These Challenges

Community-Building Activities

I began the process of building a sense of community during the pre-departure online learning phase of the program and continued with community-building strategies for the duration of the in-country experience. The strategies that I employed included exercises and meetings to facilitate students getting to know one another, a flexible approach to problem solving, group journal entries, and reflection sessions. Below are examples of these strategies in action.

  • During pre-departure online learning, I asked students to post their responses to other students’ comments on the reading material. This exercise directed students’ attention to postings by fellow students and helped them learn their names and ways of thinking.
  • When a student asked me if he could start a Korean Exploration Seminar Group online on MySpace, I gave my permission and the group was formed. This facilitated students’ conversations about how to prepare for the trip.
  • We met three times before departure: once for orientation, once for lecture, and once for last-minute logistics. These meetings helped students to connect names with faces.
  • I brought a group journal to generate group discussion and asked students to write in it. I gave 1 extra point for each entry up to a total of five points.
  • I took students to a restaurant and bought a traditional Korean meal as a welcome dinner the first night.
  • We had seven reflection sessions. Several of the reflection sessions offered activities that allowed students to get to know one another. In the group’s first session, I suggested that we introduce ourselves in these ways: Give your name, say why you were interested in this trip, and give a reason why you are a special member of the group. Then I suggested that students get to know each other and introduce another student by saying what made them special. This activity helped students learn about each other. In another exercise, students signed up to lead a reflection session. There were three students in each group, and these students had to communicate with each other in order to divide leadership responsibilities. In the fourth reflection session, students came up with the idea of having everyone write one thing about themselves that no one knew yet. We put the secret into a hat. Then every student picked one secret, read it out loud, and then guessed whose secret it was. If the student did not guess right the first time, other students joined in. This activity created many laughs as we shared secrets that we would not have otherwise shared.
  • We went to a Korean spa where there was a karaoke room. We sang together for two hours, which really made everyone feel like they belonged to the group.

Staying Safe and Healthy

There were several health and safety issues that arose during the trip. I dealt with the physical ailments and the developing homesickness by being alert and addressing the issues as they arose. In addition, students themselves began to take responsibility for one another.

  • One of the first things I did was to count the students to make sure I had all of them. For example, when we got on a rental bus from the airport to the bed and breakfast, I counted students as they got on the bus. A few days later, students started counting themselves over and over to make sure we had everybody. I appreciated that students really started to look after each other. As we walked down to the subway station, for example, if one student wanted to drop by a grocery store, all the other students just stood and waited for that student to come out of the store.
  • Being a nurse practitioner, I was able to manage minor illnesses. After one spa day, for example, I found out that two of the students were mildly dehydrated because they did not replace their fluids after they had sweated. I took both of them home, let them lie down in air-conditioned rooms, and made them drink plenty of fluids.
  • I noticed that several of us were feeling homesick during the third week, including me. So, after breakfast, we had a short reflection session to talk about our feelings and what we missed the most. I believe that this little talk helped us to get through the rest of the program.
  • In the students’ code, I made it clear that students should not drink excessively. I reminded the students of this code on the first night when we arrived at the bed and breakfast. When a student violated this code by coming home late and waking the household, I talked to the student about his behavior and its effects and established a curfew to prevent disruptive late night behavior.

Coping with a Developing Couple

A male and a female student became a couple during the trip. In the beginning I noticed that they started spending a lot of time together. They officially became a couple early in the second week of the program, and I acknowledged this fact to each person. This new relationship was a little bit of a challenge for the group as these two students tended to spend time together away from the group. For example, the male student asked one day if they could be excused from the next day’s activity. He said that they wanted to visit another place instead. I said that it was okay with me, but I asked them to join the group after they were done because I did not want them to be gone all day. After they thought about my request, they asked if they could come with us but leave early. Because we were planning free time after the group lunch anyway, I permitted this request.

Helping Students Apply What They Learned

I became aware of this issue when I took the Global Learning Seminar. To help students apply what they learned in the online learning section and in Korea to the Korean immigrant population, I asked students to include this subject in their final presentation. I designed this exercise to prompt them to think about the connections. I also gave a wrap-up lecture on the last day about how Korean culture is related to immigrants’ health promotion behaviors.

In their final presentations, students addressed attitudes toward mental illness and health behaviors in Korea such as drinking, smoking, and obesity. They observed similarities and differences between these behaviors in the U.S.-Korean immigrant population and the heritage culture. Students looked at how peer pressure, the generation gap, and cultural attitudes influenced health behaviors in Korea and the U.S. Over all, students showed an increased awareness of health issues in Korea and how some Korean immigrants are affected by practices and attitudes that originated in Korea. I believe students’ final presentations indicated that their newly gained understanding of Korean culture has provided them with insight into Korean immigrant culture.

Recommendations for Future Programs

  • Pre-departure online learning is very important for students to learn relevant concepts of the new culture. Requiring them to post responses made them think more deeply about assignments.
  • Pre-departure meetings offer an important forum for participants to meet each other and for information sharing.
  • Students come to the seminar with the mindset of “play hard and study hard.” It is important to give students plenty of learning activities and to provide plenty of free time as well. Most of the days were programmed to strike a balance between academics and cultural activities. I gave students several free half days and a full free day each week for the last two weeks of the program.
  • Use a group journal to generate discussion.
  • Encourage students to lead reflection sessions. It gives them more voice and allows them to be creative.
  • Encourage students to get to know all other students. Promote an atmosphere in which students feel safe and will take care of each other.
  • It is best to be flexible with the schedule and activities.


Page cite: Kim, Eunjung (2008), "Korean Culture, Immigration, and Health" [online] Available:

All content copyright 2008, Center for Curriculum Transformation, Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, University of Washington, and Eunjung Kim.


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