It was 11 days of learning, traveling and culture shock in a country she never would have thought about traveling to.
McNary teacher Melissa Burlingame, specializing in Advanced Placement Human Geography (AP HUG) and World History, flew to a once-in-a-lifetime experience in June. Burlingame was one of seven teachers selected by the Northeast Asian History Foundation to attend a geographic education conference and field study in Seoul, South Korea.
While learning, she had an emotional experience discovering the value of educators outside of the United States.
She originally planned to go in 2020 but a month after receiving the acceptance email the world shut down due to COVID-19. Dr. Joseph Stoltman a professor at the University of Michigan—where all the educators applied for the scholarship—stayed in contact with the seven teachers over the years. Finally, in February 2023 the trip was approved and Burlingame started studying. The trip lasted from June 21 to July 2.
The selected teachers had to write a research paper in order to attend. Burlingame wrote her project about the connection Oregon has with the Korean Peninsula. She then had to present her paper to a dozen Korean professors at the education conference in Seoul.
There they also dove into topics on geopolitics and the territorial and geographical naming issues that have persisted since the end of World War II. The teachers’ field studies included observations at the Joint Security Area of Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. They also studied Seoul itself as the capital, visiting cultural heritage and historical sites.
Every person there was an AP HUG teacher. Burlingame says all the teachers would often compare and contrast cultural differences with each other. She feels as though this was the best professional development opportunity and when applicable she’ll be able to provide a personal connection and insight when teaching the history of South Korea to McNary students.
This was Burlingame’s first time traveling outside the States but she decided to arrive in Seoul a week earlier than the rest of her group. She wanted to see as much countryside as she could on her own. Even with the worry of being a solo female traveler in a new country, Burlingame felt at ease and that South Korea was the most foreign-friendly place.
“I felt safer there than I do in Salem,” she said.
The biggest culture shift Burlingame noticed was the expectation of respect that strangers gave. She felt shocked by the locals’ politeness, especially when they heard she was a teacher, leading to a car ride Burlingame would never forget.
During her solo week Burlingame rode the passenger side of a taxi in Busan. After discovering her occupation, the driver asked if Burlingame would stay to talk with him briefly. He stopped the meter and 45 minutes went by of conversation through translation apps. She learned he was from Busan, a city created by the Korean War, and how his family was impacted by the North.
“It’s not just a history book anymore,” she said. Everything she read about now had a personal connection.
The driver was interested in Burlingame being a teacher in America, and told her that “What you do matters.” Burlingame felt a difference in the value of education in Asia versus America, she felt important. At the end of their conversation, Burlingame cried.
She still feels importance as a teacher in the US—especially when connecting with students and trying to help them be successful—but the appreciation from adults was different in South Korea.
“They treated us like we mattered,” Burlingame said. “When I came home to America I thought we had so much to learn from other cultures.”
She says we live in a society where members question authority. She expects her students to be respectful but doesn’t feel as though it is a value that’s taught as a society in the United States. To her, South Korea radiated a tradition of respect towards educators and even strangers.
Additionally, the curiosity of those she interacted with stood out to her. She noticed that South Koreans were highly interested in what America thought of them, they wanted to know how she taught about their country in her class.
At McNary, Burlingame assigns students to research different fast food menus in other countries. Being in South Korea she was able to take part in the assignment and took pictures of these menus to show her students.
Though not being a big social media person, Burlingame documented her experience on Facebook for friends and family to see. In all, she was proud of herself for being able to go on this experience.