The National Institute for International Education (NIIED) in South Korea recently debuted the new format for its Work, English Study, and Travel (WEST) program. In this special program, NIIED sends up to 160 undergraduates and recent graduates to the US for one year to pursue language education and internships for career experience, as well as allowing participants to travel in the US. In previous years, the program lasted either six or 18 months. For this opportunity, the South Korean government supports financial aid for roundtrip airfare, language training, and living expenses depending on the participants’ economic situation. Preference is given to applicants enrolled in local universities or technical colleges. The new group will leave from South Korea this month.
The NIIED-sponsored arrangement is not the only option for Korean students looking for this kind of opportunity. Implemented through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between South Korea and the US in 2008, students began arriving in 2009 and the WEST program was extended in 2013. According to the extension MOU in 2013, up to 2000 participants annually, selected from university students and recent graduates, are able to learn English for two to five months, work as an intern for up to 12 months, and also travel in the US for around one month.
According to the Ministry of Education in South Korea, the most popular destinations for WEST program participants are Washington DC, New York, and California. Participants work at internships in a wide range of industries, including finance, marketing, social media, and more.
Despite the high number of available spots, the number of participants taking part in the WEST program is fairly low, averaging around 400 people annually in the last five years. The initial MOU permitted as many as 5,000 participants per year, which was revised down to 2,000 in the 2013 extension. Even with the lower cap, only about 20% of available slots are being filled, and raw participation numbers even declined after the program was renewed. The unique program was intended to create a visa option for Korean students that was not otherwise eligible for student visas or enrolled in US institutions, and was expected to be highly popular.
The low rates are attributed to dissatisfaction with options for students compared to information given by Korean government officials at the outset of the program. At first, officials touted the fact that participants could earn money during their internships. However, many participants could not find paid internships, making the program more costly, and resulting in the implementation of financial aid options. According to one government officer, budget constraints are the primary reason for the limited number of subsidized spots in such programs, keeping participation rates lower than intended.
The WEST program represents a high quality opportunity for students, and is unique to the US-South Korea relationship. As the NIIED’s WEST group of 2015 begins their travels, they represent the fortunate few that have the chance to take full advantage of a special program.
Minseong Baek is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an Asan Washington Young Fellow at Asan Academy in Seoul.