A month ago, 16-year-old Sierra Ryerson of Greenwood had never been on an airplane.

But after flying 6,000 miles by herself this month to South Korea for a summer camp experience, she said, “I could go anywhere now.”

The Telstar junior has always dreamed of traveling abroad, she said, but those visions were generally focused on Europe, not Asia.

Then she heard from her cousin, who lives in South Korea. He told her about a summer camp that mixes Korean and American youngsters, ages 10 to 18, for a two-week cultural and language learning experience at Jungwan University. He encouraged her to apply to the Camp Fulbright Junior Internship Program.

The camp is under the umbrella of the Fulbright Program, created in 1946 under legislation sponsored by Sen. J. William Fulbright. It promotes international understanding and partnership through a variety of programs and educational opportunities, including exchange programs, according to the website.

Sierra applied and was accepted, though she had some serious misgivings as the time to leave approached: “I was scared,” she said.

But she got on the plane, and after a 13-hour flight landed in a country where she couldn’t read signs or speak the language.

After the initial jitters, Sierra joined in with the camp activities.

“The Korean kids went to English classes for three hours a day,” she said. “They were not allowed to speak Korean. We [the Americans] had Korean classes.”

Other Americans there hailed from Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii. Interestingly, she said, “I was the first one to apply to the program from Maine.”

Sierra said that even meeting young people from other parts of the U.S. was an eye-opening experience for her.

Outside the language classes, Sierra learned about Korean culture, food and history. “They are very respectful of their elders,” she said, and people almost always put the good of the larger group before their own interests. She was impressed by the subtleties of the practice of bowing when meeting another person. The higher the status or seniority of the other person, she said, the deeper the bow.

And given her position as an intern, she said, even campers older than she looked up to her.

There were also typical camp experiences, including singing songs, playing games like badminton and dodge ball, and nighttime activities such as stargazing and frog watching.

Sierra also learned it is a small world. Her Korean roommate in the dormitory had friends who attends Gould Academy, she said.

There were also opportunities to sight see at historical landmarks, and visit the U.S. Embassy.

As for food, while Koreans eat a lot of vegetables, Sierra said, her preference was for the noodles. But she was open to experimentation. “I ate a silkworm,” she said – an experience she doesn’t want to repeat. But, she said, Koreans also eat a lot of seafood, which she enjoyed. “I liked the squid,” she said.

When the two weeks ended, said Sierra, “I cried harder when I left Korea than I did when I left home.” She hopes to return to the country at Christmas time to visit her cousin.

Looking back now on the camp experience, “I’m more open-minded now toward Asia,” she said. “I had never really thought about it before.”

She also said she feels like she is now generally more open to new experiences. “I tried so many things,” she said.

The Korean trip has also solidified an interest she has long had in a career in diplomacy and international relations. “I want to double major in international relations and political science,” said Sierra.

For Telstar’s annual Career Week next spring, she hopes to go to Washington, D.C., where she plans to job shadow another cousin. He works for the federal government and hopes to soon work for the foreign service, she said. She’d like to go to college there also, and plans to visit several while she is there.

Sierra also has another dream beyond just working abroad.

“By the time I’m 65, I want to be able to say I’ve been in every country in the world,” she said.


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