Extant studies have reported that Korean students were motivated to study abroad mainly for academic and career purposes(Park, 2009; Kim, 2011). Although Korean society has experienced transitions with globalization, research documenting the recent changes in student mobility is scarce. In this study, we propose to explore what motivates the new generation of students born in the 2000s (so-called ‘Millennial generation’) to study abroad under these dynamic social changes.
Previous studies have investigated students’ motivations to study abroad. One line of research explains that in East Asia, students mostly strive to study abroad in order to obtain better educational and career opportunities (Kim, 2011). Pull factors attract students to cross borders for educational purposes, such as the prospect of improving English language skills or the high quality of education offered overseas (Park, 2010; Marginson, 2008). Conversely, another line of research has documented that students plan to study abroad to enjoy a fun and free lifestyle without expectations about using their study abroad experience for utilitarian purposes (Waters et al., 2011). Building on this work, we suggest that as generations change, Korean students’ motivation for studying abroad is gradually shifting from functional purposes to fulfilling self-realization aspirations.
This study takes a qualitative approach to explore our participants’ motivations to study abroad and analyze which aspirations they expect to fulfill by obtaining education overseas. In-depth retrospective interviews were conducted with eighteen South Korean college students recruited from a larger survey sample including students from six universities with the highest globalizations scores in Korea. We carried out within-case analysis to understand which beliefs and expectations participants have formed hopes for study abroad. Next, we conducted cross-case analysis to examine recurrent themes and formulate the collective narrative of Korean college students in the context of globalization and marketization.
The most notable theme of our interview is that self-realization and self-satisfaction are strong rationales of study abroad for this generation Korean college students. While academic and career benefits were the main driving factors in past studies, Korean college students in our sample tended to choose study abroad as a tool for self-realization. First, study abroad creates space for students to enhance self-understanding by exposing them to the unfamiliar environment and custom of a foreign country. Second, students believed that if they left their family to go abroad alone, they could be somewhat freed from their existing social obligations, and could have more time to focus entirely on themselves. Although they experienced inner conflict due to realistic problems they might encounter when going abroad for self-realization purposes, our interviewees were determined to fulfill their aspirations.
Our study suggests the possibility of Korea’s cultural emphasis shifting from education to self-realization as awareness of alternative ways of being emerge with the new opportunities globalization provides. This suggests successive, drastic change in other nexuses of Korean society. Future studies of the impact of globalization in other East Asian countries that have also traditionally placed great emphasis on education are fruitful avenues of further investigation.