ETA Spotlight: Cara Mooney, South Korea

Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This month, Rebecca Brower, 2015-17 ETA in South Korea, talked with Cara Mooney, an ETA finishing up her second grant-year in South Korea. 



Cara, left, is a second year ETA from upstate New York placed in Gwangju, South Korea.

1.Why did you choose Korea?

I was adopted as a baby from South Korea and I always wanted the opportunity to come back and really get to know my birth country and learn about my heritage.

2.What part of Korea do you live in, and what school do you teach at?
I live in Gwangju in Jeollaman-do, the southwestern most region of the Korean peninsula. It’s not a very touristy city, but it has a rich and interesting modern history, that I really got to feel during the massive pro-impeachment protests that happened earlier this year. It’s a wonderful place to live in. I couldn’t imagine being placed anywhere else. I teach at a co-ed middle school.

3.Since every country ETA program has different requirements, what all does your grant entail?
South Korea is one of the Fulbright countries that takes a pretty large number of grantees. For ETAs in my cohort, we were able to put in preferences for our placement, but really there’s no control over where you could end up. We have people all over the country from urban to rural and all sorts of schools. As an incoming grantee, you won’t be placed in Seoul though. First year ETAs are usually all placed with a homestay to get a fuller experience of life with a Korean family.

Every placement and school vary so much it’s hard to give a full picture, but you teach roughly 22 hours of class a week and work 40 hours. They may include club classes or not. There are a number of Fulbright and ETA-run programs that you can participate in like tutoring North Korean Defectors or holding a debate with Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference (YDAC).

Cara with some of her students on Sports Day, an annual event for all public schools in South Korea.

4.What does a normal weekday look like for you?
So I have to be at my school by 8:30am. I’m not a morning person, so this is usually the worst part of my day. I’ve found it takes me 15 minutes to walk from my apartment to work, but if I’m running (which happens occasionally), I can make it in 4 minutes. Haha! At least I’m not taking a bus. Last year my commute was almost 40 minutes when I lived with a homestay and I usually spent over 100,000 won a month on bus transportation.

I teach 22 class hours a week, so that’s usually 4-6 classes in a given day. It keeps me pretty busy. This year I have my own classroom which is wonderful. So my students come to me instead of me rotating through all of their homerooms.

I finish at 4:30, but classes usually end at 4:00 followed by 30 minute school cleaning that students do every day. It’s a fairly regular routine. I’m fortunate to usually get notice well in advance if a class is canceled or something is going on, because Korean schools are notorious for last minute changes that never get passed on to the foreign teacher.  

5.If you have, how have you gotten more involved with the school outside of the classroom? What are some of your activities outside of school and in the community?
Sometimes, if I’m not too busy or don’t have plans, I’ll stay after school with the badminton or soccer club and play with my students. They really enjoy that and some of my lowest level students play sports so I think it’s a great way to interact with them outside of the classroom. A few times the schools go on field trips or do club trips. I have accompanied a few students to see a baseball game and met with a few former students for coffee or lunch.

On my own, I have taken up taekwondo (Korean martial arts). I go 2-3 times a week. I’ve gotten really solid at counting to twenty in Korean from this. I used to take Korean classes after work, but lately I have stopped and have been focusing on other things. Hiking has also become one of my main hobbies.

The summit of Jirisan (Jiri Mountain), the second tallest mountain in South Korea.

6.What have been some challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is dealing with being Korean American in Korea, especially as an adoptee. It’s a very complicated situation. I look Korean so I’m often held to different standards than other “real foreigners”. Many non-Korean Asians will tell you the same thing. Add in the fact I’m adopted, and it’s led to some pretty awkward conversations. I’ve met people, especially older Koreans, who aren’t afraid of asking rather personal questions or even being condescending or outright rude. Thankfully these situations have been few and far between and I’ve become adept at dealing with this situation here.

7.What have been some highlights?

There so many! The food, the people, the lifestyle… I would have to say one of the best is the relationships I have with many students and our daily interactions. They are a continuous source of entertainment and hilarity. Some of the stunts they try to pull continue to amaze me. There are days that a student might drive me crazy, but by and large I work with a great group of students and I hope they know how much I care. I’m so sad to be leaving. I have yet to get up the courage to break the news to them…

Traditional Korean clothing, hanboks, can be worn by visitors to traditional villages, which are popular tourist destinations in South Korea.

8.What was your best lesson plan?

I’ve had a few. My 1st graders seem to enjoy anything I give them. Just last week we played Silent Charades where the students form teams and stand in lines and try to mime the word I give them. It goes down the line and the last person runs up to the board and writes the word they think their team was acting out. The hilarity was endless and it even got my special needs students excited and involved.

My 2nd and 3rd graders are more difficult to work with. The 3rd graders are so over school and it’s not even the second semester. They’re thinking about high school and stressing about hagwon (private academy). Their textbook that I must use is also really terrible and dry. However, last week, we did a food lesson and I was able to incorporate a taste test into the activity at the end. I created different tasting waters: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, spicy, vinegary, and normal. Every student got a Dixie cup. We went around the classroom and tried it. It was so much fun for everyone. I had students for weeks afterward still talking about it (especially the spicy water). They all told me they like spicy and could handle it. So I boiled five of Korea’s hottest peppers into the water. Muhahaha…  

9.Do you live with a homestay family? If so, describe your homestay.

I lived with a homestay last year. They are wonderful. It’s a young family with two elementary children. They really treat me like family and I call them “older brother” and “older sister” and their kids call me “aunt”. I’ve been to three weddings and numerous birthdays with them. Even though I’m living on my own, they still invite me to dinner and family outings or come over for surprise visits.

Cara with her homestay family from her 2015-2016 grant-year.

10.What is your plan post-Fulbright?

I’m still trying to work out the longer plan, but immediately I will be traveling for four months in South America with another Fulbright Korea friend. I’ll be returning in time for Christmas and plan to start the job hunt in the New Year. I’d like to work for a while before I consider graduate school. So that’s the plan for now!

11.What will you miss the most?


12. Why should prospective grantees apply to Korea?

It’s a challenging, but rewarding program. Many ETAs are given significant responsibility in the classroom with enough freedom to also teach things they’re interested. You can really make the most of your time in Korea and there’s a great work-life balance so you can also have time for other things.

To read more about Cara’s experience as an ETA in South Korea, you can visit her blog:


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