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Returning to His Roots

For international business major Andrew Gibbs, a semester in South Korea was more than a résumé boost—it also meant the chance to explore his heritage.

By Bill Gerdes

Andrew Gibbs isn’t your average University of Alabama senior.

At 25, the Huntsville resident is a little older than most of his classmates. He was born in South Korea and adopted as an infant by an Alabama couple. And last year, thanks to a three-and-a-half-year hitch in the U.S. Coast Guard and a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, Gibbs finally got the chance to connect with his birth country.

As a youngster growing up in Alabama, Gibbs knew almost nothing about South Korea and had given the country and his Korean connection little thought. That all began to change when he joined the Coast Guard after high school.

“My life-defining experiences occurred while I was in the Coast Guard, traveling and studying abroad,” says Gibbs, now an international business major at UA. Until he enlisted, he had never traveled much outside his home state, let alone the country. During his tour of duty, he got to visit Korea for the first time, sparking a new interest in his native land. After he enrolled at the University, the Gilman Scholarship—given to U.S. undergraduates with financial need, including those with diverse backgrounds and those traveling to non-traditional study-abroad destinations—allowed him to return to spend part of his junior year at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Gibbs clearly recalls the magic of the moment he arrived in January 2009. “When I first stepped onto Korean soil, there was a very calm feeling in the air,” he says. “It was nighttime and there was a light snow falling. A friend met me at the airport and took me to my residence. While riding in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, I could see the bright city lights that so richly illuminate Seoul.”

Less magical, however, was the culture shock: abrupt swings in weather, traffic and transportation quirks and a constant, frenetic bustle that took some getting used to.

“Life in Korea is very fast-paced and can almost seem overwhelming at first for most foreigners,” Gibbs says. “Korea is a very densely populated country—there are so many people walking the streets at all hours of the night. Motorcycle deliverymen are allowed to use the sidewalk to avoid car traffic. People are constantly moving out of the way or yielding for them.”

Fortunately, his transition to Yonsei itself was a little smoother. The school has a separate college for international students, which covers most core and business courses—all conducted in English by professors from Korea and elsewhere.

“Sometimes it almost felt like I was studying in the U.S. but being taught by a Korean professor,” Gibbs says. Yonsei offers the same pre-business classes as UA; Gibbs took marketing, management and finance, and says that those and his other courses will count directly toward his degree.

“My marketing class gave me some valuable insight into the Korean market and the mindsets of businesses that strategically market their products around Korea,” Gibbs says. “If I had had another semester, I would have liked to intern at one of South Korea’s major businesses, such as IBM, Samsung, LG or Hyundai.”

Gibbs, who is on track to graduate in 2010, plans to parlay his study-abroad experience into a career as an international business consultant, preferably for the U.S. office of a multinational firm.

“International business presents a great opportunity to experience other countries and cultures and to gain firsthand experience on differing corporate cultures, labor and living standards, environmental standards, education and so much more,” he says.

He hopes to travel regularly to Europe and Asia for work, and particularly looks forward to future sojourns in South Korea. Given the chance, Gibbs says, he’d love to spend more time exploring the country and its rich cultural history: numerous museums, traditional folk villages and festivals.

“It would take me years just to see and experience all Korea has to offer,” he says. “One of my former instructors at Yonsei is an American living in Seoul. He has been living there for the past 20 or more years and says that he still learns something new about Korean culture on a regular basis.” For Gibbs, the lessons may be just beginning.