Randy Vargas almost missed the trip of a lifetime.

The CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Class of 2023 Art major had been accepted to study at Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea, but with the pandemic showing no signs of abating, Vargas wondered whether studying abroad was the right decision. Would South Korea’s border remain open to visiting students? Would he be able to meet people and travel? Would he get the full study abroad experience?

In Fall 2021, after a yearlong pause in CSUCI’s study abroad program, 18 CSUCI students took a leap of faith and boarded planes once again to experience life overseas. Vargas – despite his initial hesitancy – was among them, setting aside his concerns for a sense of adventure, instead.

Arriving in their host countries that semester with COVID still circulating, students found themselves thrust into a study abroad experience unlike any other, facing an array of health and safety protocols. But for students like Vargas, the leap of faith was more than worth it: Meeting new friends, gaining confidence, finding their true selves, and creating lifetime memories.

Among study abroad COVID precautions, South Korea was among the most restrictive, including imposing a strict 14-day quarantine for all arriving students and enforcing a mask mandate in all areas of public life. For Vargas, the COVID restrictions not only tested his resolve, but they also meant his courses would be completely online.

However, Vargas saw his semester online as an opportunity to fully immerse himself in his new culture.

“It made the adjustment a lot easier. I could Zoom in to my classes from anywhere in South Korea,” he said.

Vargas planned overnight trips with his fellow CSUCI students: tangerine picking in Jeju-do and lighting fireworks from a yacht off the waters of Busan. He discovered that his favorite spot in South Korea is the Han River, a river that runs through the heart of Seoul.

 “The Han River is healing. It’s a place to wind down after work,” he said. “It's a place to feel part of the community. There is always someone there, even at 3:00 am or 4:00 am.”

When the Fall 2021 semester came to an end, COVID restrictions had eased and by the time the Spring 2022 semester had ended, Vargas was among 40 students who had been able to study in nine different countries.

In addition to South Korea, students traveled to the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Peru, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

When Spring 2022 rolled around for Vargas, he felt as if his time abroad was too short. He realized he wanted to have that in-person, on-campus experience for himself. So, he decided to extend his stay for the Spring 2022 semester. COVID restrictions had eased so courses would be in-person.

The semester was all that he had hoped for. He developed friendships with Korean students and fellow foreign exchange students. He explored South Korea’s cafe culture and commanded the mic at karaoke nights. He met his girlfriend, and subsequently, her Korean parents.

Forced to navigate unfamiliar situations and problem solve on his own, Vargas realized he had tapped into a well of strength and independence he didn’t know he had.

“Being confident is my superpower,” he said.

The visual art surrounding him in Seoul inspired Vargas to pursue a career in graphic design. He took the opportunity to hone his design skills at Konkuk University and has now his set his sights set on becoming a graphic designer for fashion magazines.

“Hopefully I run with this torch that’s burning,” he said.

This summer, borders have also now reopened to students in Australia and Japan and CSUCI plans to send 22 more students abroad this fall.  Students interested in the study abroad program should contact the International Programs Office for more information at https://www.csuci.edu/international/study-abroad/ or follow us on Instagram @ci_studyabroad. The deadline to apply for a Spring 2023 experience is September 15, 2022.

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