Updated: May 8
"Because I don't think it's fair for me to just enjoy the world and other women are looking at my Instagram and wishing they were me. I want them to have their own experiences doing it." (Gina, Episode 36)
"Scholarship dreams, Korean life, and a little Italian beef from @gina.international..."
This is how I captioned the audiogram video for this episode, which I posted on the Young, Gifted and Abroad Instagram account yesterday. And I was inordinately pleased with myself about said caption, so I thought to start off today's piece with that. I actually got connected with Regina (Gina) Williams on Facebook, where we are both members of the group Brothas&Sistas of South Korea. Gina, originally from Chicago, has been living in Korea for the past five years, and currently she's preparing to give back by awarding travel grants to women through her non-profit, Gina International Travel Organization.
Before arriving in Korea for the first time as an undergraduate student, Gina had traveled a bit already. She went to Canada and Mexico with her family as a child, and then to Spain and France in high school. High school was also the period when she became infatuated with K-pop, and Korean music and culture soon became two of her strongest passions. So much so that she went to Cornell College ("the other Cornell", as she later joked to me, the one in Iowa) to earn a degree in Asian studies. She also spent a semester in 2012 at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. (Fun fact: Both women and men can be admitted as international students, for anyone who's interested.) Since she was a business-minded person who'd long had an entrepreneurial spirit instilled in her by her father, she'd arranged to study hospitality management at Sookmyung. However, one of the professors preferred to teach her class in Korean rather than English so it would be easier for the Korean students to keep up, and another professor couldn't teach in English at all despite her claims to the contrary. So Gina had to switch to Korean studies instead.
But she still made the most of her time, as best she could. She learned a ton about Korea, took art and martial arts classes, played soccer, and spent the night out in the rain after clubbing once (campus curfews are no joke). She even met with the university president and advocated for her fellow international students' concerns at the time. And make no mistake, Gina found a way to flex her muscles as an entrepreneur as well. When the international students were accidentally deprived of the chance to order letterman jackets like their Korean counterparts, Gina had custom ones made so that they could show their school spirit too.
Gina moved to South Korea after graduating, working as a teacher in the southeastern coastal city of Pohang. She was hired to replace a teacher who'd vacated his contract before his year was up, and the fact that the school was so eager to get her there so quickly should have been a sign. Her apartment was left a mess which she had to clean, there were
administrative and organizational issues that made the school a difficult place to work, and her bosses were uncaring, to put it lightly. For example, once when Gina got hit by a car on the way to work, she proceeded to teach a class and then tell her school's staff that she needed to go to the hospital, but one of her bosses insisted that she keep teaching first. However, even after having moved to Seoul and taught at other schools, Gina insists that her Pohang students remain her favorite. Many of them were adult students, and they consistently stuck up for her and treated her like family when she needed it.
"I am always afraid, but [on] the other side of fear is... you literally feel like you're the queen of the world."
Numerous other strange and unfortunate things happened to Gina during her years in Korea, prompting her to leave in October 2018 because she needed a break. Before leaving, however, she took notice of how other foreign nationals were taking advantage of their time by networking, forming communities for themselves, and engaging in ventures in addition to their day jobs. With that in mind, she returned to Chicago for a bit, traveled Europe, Egypt, and South America, and returned to South Korea ready to give it a third try. Most importantly, she'd been reminded of who she was before working in Korea and was determined to indulge in her passions again, which include painting, singing, and being an entrepreneur. This time, rather than just doing straight business, she decided she wanted to help more women travel internationally, which is how Gina International Travel Organization came about. She wants them to feel as self-assured and empowered as she has become. As she admitted to me, "I am always afraid, but I push myself to do it anyway. Because on the other side of fear is... you literally feel like you're the queen of the world."
As of the publishing of this episode and this blog post, the non-profit is still in development (which is going well!). Once it's up and running, Gina intends to award travel grants of at least $5,000 to women who are traveling abroad for educational or research purposes. It will be open to all women, but Gina will prioritize under-served women who have fewer resources for and access to opportunities like these. Gina currently resides as a teacher in Seoul, where she hopes to stay for the long haul while still visiting more places (so far she's been to 29 countries 6 continents). She also hopes to master the Korean language, get some TV roles, and find more ways to forge cultural exchange between Korean people and women like her. Gina can be found on Instagram (@gina.international), Facebook (GinaInternational), or the website for her non-profit (Gina International Travel Organization). And readers ages 18 and up are welcome to read her travel stories on her blog, Gina Goes to Korea.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Brave with Purple Braids (GINA INTERNATIONAL)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Cornell College Off-Campus Studies (includes study abroad)
Cornell College Exchange Programs (includes Japan and South Korea)
Booking.com (flight and hotel deals, etc.)
Brothas&Sistas of South Korea (FB group)
Danielle G. is the creator and host of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.