With a population of 30,000 international students, Seoul has a diverse collection of residents from around the world, each with their own needs, problems, and dreams. In Seoul’s push to be a global city, it launched the fifth Seoul International Student Forum (SISF) in cooperation with the Seoul Global Center, inviting a select group of international students to have their say.

One hundred participants were selected from applications submitted earlier this spring, of which 88 were international students representing 28 nations and the remaining twelve were Korean students who assisted the international participants. Priority was given to those with a score of Grade 3 or higher in TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) and those who’d studied in Korea the longest. The 100 selected applicants were divided into six groups to work on their proposals, to be given directly to Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

“We had to go research what kind of problems foreigners have here,” explained SISF President Zahid Hussain of Pakistan, a graduate of electrical engineering at Korea University. “Based on problems many people were facing we wanted to come up with solutions.”

The six groups met two times a week during the two-month summer break to hash out problems with living in Seoul and suggest solutions that would improve the lives of not just foreign residents but Koreans as well. They also visited various agencies and offices and engaged in volunteer activities.

The SISF proposals were presented before Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (right) at a townhall meeting on August 23.The SISF proposals were presented before Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (right) at a townhall meeting on August 23.

Phoei Teng Michelle Lam, a student from the Netherlands currently studying at Yonsei’s Korean Language Institute, was selected as chairperson for group E, a team of twelve members including eleven foreigners and one Korean.

“The development of our proposal started simply with brainstorming about different ideas and eventually we choose one where we were all interested in,” she said, “coming up with a solution started with our own experiences and troubles we had when we came to Seoul. After that we researched about how those problems are taken care of in other countries.”

Her group came up with two proposals, one regarding signage in Seoul’s subway system, and one regarding the street trash in Seoul. They went forward with the proposal concerning the subway system, putting together a proposal that was presented to Mayor Park at the August 23 town meeting.

“We and many others experienced difficulties when taking the subway in Seoul,” she explained, “for example, the many different kind of ‘trains,’ eg normal and express train, and the difficulties of transferring especially at bigger stations like Sindorim, Wangsimni, Dongdaemun, etc. The main problem was that Koreans also face this problem even though they have lived whole their life in Seoul. We came up with an idea that would educate people about the city of Seoul and make it easier for people to take the subway.”

Their solution was to add bearings to existing subway signs, such as Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound, or Southbound. Currently, subway signage only shows the next station and major stations down the line, which can be difficult for users unfamiliar with all the station names.

Group E's sticker would conveniently fit on most subway signs (photo courtesy of Lam and the SISF).Group E's sticker would conveniently fit on most subway signs (photo courtesy of Lam and the SISF).

When travelling by subway, it is difficult to have a bearing on compass direction, so to bolster the plan, Lam’s group proposed a poster/sticker campaign educating the public on how to divide Seoul into north, south, east, and west.

“This way people will get a clearer view of how the city of Seoul is divided and even though they do not know the exact position of their destination,” Lam explains. “If they know in which area it is they will be more easily capable of finding the right train.”

After two months of planning, the selected international students went to the Global Lounge at Yonsei University on August 23 to share their proposals at the Second Seoul Town Meeting 2012 attended by Mayor Park Won-soon, who took special interest in Lam’s proposal.

“He said right after he goes to the office he’ll do it,” said Hussain.

Lam’s team was ecstatic at the mayor’s reaction. “After two months of hard working and hearing that the mayor would like to implement our proposal, it felt like nothing could have gone better,” she said. “Hopefully in the future we can really see our proposal in the subway and of course hopefully, it will really make it easier for the people in Seoul to use the Seoul subway.”

SISF members pulled Mayor Park out of his chair to dance to PSY's SISF members pulled Mayor Park out of his chair to dance to PSY's "Gangnam Style."

Other proposals by the five other teams tackled issues such as traffic, jobs for international students, policies for social networking services, multiculturalism, and the unique talents that foreigners bring to Korea.

Group A’s Travel Green proposal offered ways to decrease traffic in Seoul and encourage use of public transportation. They proposed the creation of a carpooling website to help connect commuters, as well as an increase in shuttle buses.

Group B’s Jobs for International Students addressed the difficulties international students have finding legal work. They proposed the creation of a website to help connect employers with prospective interns and part-time workers interested in a working holiday in Seoul, particularly in jobs related to tourism or culture.

Group C made a proposal called Smart Seoul, suggesting policies for the Seoul Global Center network’s SNS services. They suggested closer ties between Seoul Global Centers, Village Centers, Cultural Tourism Centers, and employee centers.

Group D’s presentation, “Building a Harmonious Global City,” suggested policies for helping foreign residents integrate more smoothly into Korean society. They advocated providing volunteering and donation opportunities to get foreign residents involved, and suggested the creation of a video about the culture gap to encourage mutual understanding.

Group F’s presentation, “A spoon of talent,” encouraged the Korean public school system to take advantage of the talent pool of foreign residents. They suggested increasing foreigner participation in the classroom beyond language education, to help students understand multiculturalism. To drive the point home, they incorporated a mini talent show into their presentation, sharing art and staging a small martial arts demonstration.

SISF President Zahid Hussain presents Mayor Park Won-soon with a bouquet.SISF President Zahid Hussain presents Mayor Park Won-soon with a bouquet.

Now in its fifth year, the forum began in 2008 to give foreign residents a chance to share their diverse opinions to find global solutions for Seoul. Previous proposals have covered topics such making transportation signs more multilingual, increasing the availability of Halal foods and providing better dietary information, and more general concerns about health, hygiene, and the immigration system.

“I think being part of SISF 2012 and the Seoul Global Center gave us many opportunities to participating in many excellent activities and meet great people,” said Lam. “I strongly recommend students in Seoul to join SISF, because it is fun and educational.”

The most outstanding participants are offered a chance to join the Global Internship program and work as interns in Seoul City Hall in 2013.

For more information about the SISF and the Seoul Global Center, visit their website (English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean).

By Jon Dunbar
Korea.net Editor