Anghelina Severin was awake before 5 a.m. on an important day for her in early March. The Rustic Pathways Foundation was announcing the winners for its annual Service Program Scholarships, and she was hoping to get a special email sent from across the globe.
“When I saw it I just ran to my mom and said, “Oh my God, I have a full scholarship,’” Anghelina said. “She was so excited for me.”
The scholarship would open a door for Anghelina – one that is uncommon in her community in Moldova. There it can be difficult for teens to get permission to travel alone internationally, so her classmates thought she’d never win the financial aid offer. Anghelina credits her parents for making it possible to travel on the Seoul Searching: Modern Korea program.
They drove out of town to get Anghelina a visa for South Korea after efforts to get one for Costa Rica failed. Her parents signed a legal form to allow Anghelina to travel alone.
“It was very hard to prepare all the documents for traveling, but thankfully it was not hard for me to cross the South Korean border,” Anghelina said.
The efforts paid off. Anghelina’s program was so impactful she’s investigating studying abroad in South Korea for her senior year of high school. It took some time to get to that point. The program began with nerves, but it ended with many treasured memories and a bunch of new friends.
Learning About Education in South Korea
Anghelina had already proven she was a great scholarship candidate long before it arrived. She’d been passionate about child rights and education for years. She says she was bullied in her school as a child, but her mother Tatiana inspired her to advocate for worthwhile causes. Tatiana taught Anghelina English from a young age and educated her about the wider world.
“My mom gave me a lot of insights on human rights. She’s an open-minded person, and we’d talk for hours about worldwide issues,” Anghelina said.
This led her to become an activist. Anghelina was selected to join the United Nations Adolescents and Youth Advisory Panel for Moldova as well as the Child Advisory Team at Child Rights Connect. Still she’d never been to Asia previously or traveled alone.
“I was kind of shaking because of excitement, and I was very overwhelmed,” Anghelina said. “The group of students was amazing though, and we were given the most delicious dinner the first night.”
After settling into the country, the students learned about the culture and explored Seoul. Then they set out for Anghelina’s favorite part of the program – visiting a local high school and then interacting with children at a community center. Anghelina said they were welcomed with open arms at the school where she was paired with a local student.
“The people were so friendly, and when you’re entering their place, you’re already part of their team… I gained more than 40 followers on my Instagram during my time at the school,” Anghelina said.
She and the other Rustic Pathways students sat in a number of Korean classes, including music and science. They also played a game similar to dodgeball that Anghelina was thrilled she won. Along the way, she was surprised by what she saw at the Korean school.
“It was probably the biggest school I’ve ever seen in my life… The science classes and technologies were amazing,” Anghelina said. “I would compare my education with theirs, and I would just know these kids are smarter than I am. I have so much motivation to fight for education in my country after visiting South Korea.”
With the younger children, Anghelina did find some reminders of home. She reminisced about the days when she was first learning English.
“I went back to my childhood while being there,” Anghelina said. “We were teaching the children English with songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. It got me thinking about the time when I was learning that song when I was like six years old.”
Such moments gave her opportunities to reflect on why she wants to keep fighting for children’s rights and how much she loves spending time with kids.
“Deep in my soul, I’m still a child even if I’m a teenager,” Anghelina said. “There are moments you should be childish, and that was one of them. It allows you to connect with children very easily.”
Anghelina admits other parts of the program weren’t as easy for her, but she learned more about herself as she pushed herself out of her comfort zone again and again.
Testing Her Limits
Early in the program Anghelina nearly gave up when she was faced with what would be the most challenging part of the program for her. The students walked up hundreds of steps on Nam Mountain to reach the Seoul Tower. She says it was difficult, but the program leaders kept encouraging her.
“Peter the program leader would say, ‘Yes, let’s do this,’ and I would say, ‘No, it’s so hard,’” Anghelina laughed.
But she persevered with encouragement and eventually – step by step – made it to the top where she says the views were amazing. Along the way, she learned the advantages of pushing herself.
“For me, when you are hiking, the process feels so hard. And then after hiking you have this feeling that you’re alive. You have motivation to go. It seems like you can move mountains,” Anghelina said.
This kind of revelation would help her as she tried other new things, like staying in a Buddhist temple, surfing, and K-Pop dancing.
The first stop outside Seoul was the Woljeongsa Temple tucked amid Odaesan National Park. There the students stayed overnight learning about Buddhism.
“It’s so peaceful there. It was the first time in a lot of months when I felt like I’m absolutely calm,” Anghelina said.
The students listened to a monk speak and learned about the Korean Buddhist practice of 108 bows. They also were given some Buddhist beads that Anghelina still wears daily, and they saw how the monks live.
“After seeing their lifestyle I was thinking maybe I should take some time to reflect on my life, practice breathing and do yoga. They look so healthy and are so positive. They’re respectful and dedicated to what they believe in and are excited about their lives,” Anghelina said.
Following the relaxing time at the temple, the students drove to the beach where they went surfing. Anghelina had never tried surfing before and struggled to balance herself on the board. She also faced fears about being at sea.
“I have some phobias related to things I can’t control in the water. But I overcame it. My love for the sea, water and swimming is extremely special to me,” Anghelina said.
She also let go of her fears as she tried karaoke singing and following K-Pop dance moves. In between these activities, she enjoyed the foods she tried from ice cream to noodles.
She also brought a taste of her culture to the other students. Anghelina shared chocolate candies called Chișinăul de Seara and Moldovan jams, including ones made from green walnuts. It was just part of the cultural exchange they experienced.
Sharing Cultural Lessons
In Anghelina’s group there were students from Taiwan, Australia and the United States in addition to her and the Korean leaders. They chatted about their different backgrounds and their challenges.
In Anghelina’s country she lives a couple of hours from the Ukraine border. She’s seen the struggle of Ukrainian refugees, especially as a student in a Russian-speaking school. Anghelina has had trouble with people from other cultures who think she’s Russian rather than Moldovan because of her mother tongue. She shares the struggles she’s seen with others and says travel helps students like her understand people from different backgrounds.
“I’ve become more open minded,” Anghelina said. “There are a lot of good people and valuable insights in every single culture. You should not pay attention to nationality. You should pay attention to personality and cultural heritage.”
She and the other students found the perfect role models for this perspective when they traveled with their program leaders. Anghelina says she was inspired by Peter and her other program leader Kelci.
“I told her in the future I want to be like her, having the same kind of experience with children. She’s an amazing person” Anghelina said.
By the end of the program, Anghelina said she hated to leave, and they were all in tears. But she hopes to be back. Next up for Anghelina are study abroad applications and then more waiting, hopefully for more emails bearing good news.