Courtesy of Judith Chang

After classes ended in May, Judith Chang ’24 joined her family in Seoul, South Korea. While she had visited South Korea in the past, this was the first time Chang was fully living in the country since she moved to the United States at age six.

Chang spent her summer participating in a Yale Science, Technology and Research Scholars remote lab experience and taking an online course with the STARS program. Afterwards, she concluded that online school was not for her. So, after Yale announced its plan for virtual classes in the fall, Chang decided to take a leave of absence and stay in Korea.

“I’ve just been a student all my life, and that’s kind of almost the only path that I saw for myself,” Chang said. “But coming here [I saw] that there are other opportunities, whether it be just like volunteer work, working [or] internships.”

Chang has been teaching biology and AP biology at a prep academy in Seoul. The public health situation in South Korea allows Chang to teach some of her classes in person and socially distanced when in-person gatherings are permitted. During spikes in COVID-19 case numbers, however, Chang teaches her classes remotely.

Though she took AP biology in high school and came to Yale as a prospective chemistry major, teaching requires a complete understanding of the topic, Chang said, so she appreciates the learning opportunity that teaching provides.

“I’m learning the content and I’m solving the problems with them,” Chang said. “Yes, I’m their teacher, but in a way, I’m almost a peer also doing it with them. I’ve loved that, and it’s definitely helped me have a new perspective as a student of how best I myself can learn.”

But for Chang, the greatest experience of all has been living with her two friends, Nicole Marino ’24 and Michaela Markels ’24.

The two joined Chang later in the summer in a small studio apartment after completing a two-week government-mandated quarantine, and they stayed with her until mid-November.

“It was honestly such an amazing experience living with my two closest friends because us three absolutely prioritized each other and … the experience we were having with each other,” Chang said. “It was the simplest things of watching like a sunset or taking a walk outside. We could not put into words how grateful we were that we were together during a pandemic.”

Acting as “the host of the century,” according to Markels, Chang helped the group navigate life in Korea. Because her friends could not speak Korean, Chang happily acted as a translator, once even helping her friends converse with a monk they met when visiting a temple.

Her success as a host extended far beyond her knowledge of Korean, though, Markels explained, pointing out that Chang was always so positive and appreciative of the time she got to spend with her friends. Chang also helped drive the group’s social life by connecting the group with new people, such as her mom’s friends and other Yalies in Seoul.

“She literally would DM anybody who she knew that was from Yale within Seoul,” Markels said. “Then we ended up having this friend group there of Yale kids because of her, like Nicole and I would have never done that.”

And through these spontaneous messages, Chang reconnected with Haze Yi ’23, whom she had only met up with a few times on campus. But the fact that both of them were in South Korea this semester allowed them to become close.

Chang helped Yi with a short film she created this semester — the first part in a four-part series called “Youth,” which interprets youth using the four seasons. Chang helped operate the clapperboard, acted as a waitress in the film and even partly inspired the theme of the film.

“I remember Judith saying, like, she was looking very forlorn, looking out onto the sea and what she said was ‘Is this the point of life? To grow up, to be a pretty daughter and then to have a pretty daughter yourself,’” Yi recalled of Chang. “It was so sad. That kind of was one of the inspirations for the short film.”

Though Chang had always wanted to return to Korea, she had never pictured it happening so soon and had also never pictured herself taking time away from school, she said. But, through living in Korea, Chang has been able to connect with people she may otherwise never have met and has learned a lot about herself academically as well.

Going back to Yale, Chang is interested in taking classes not only in the subjects she enjoys but also the ones that complement her and her goals. Chang is now considering double majoring in statistics and English in order to work on her communication skills and in turn become more flexible.

“It’s definitely a new trajectory that I would have never asked or envisioned for myself,” Chang said. “As a specific Yale student, I can now go back as a better self, more confident about what major I want to do. … As a person, I am happy because I see now more of the different paths that one can have in the future.”

Adam Levine | a.levine@yale.edu