SEOUL – Seoul was launched last week as the fourth city in Minerva’s rotation, as the Classes of 2019 and 2020 converged. The Elevation Welcome Event on September 2 marked the beginning of Minerva’s first and only year where two separate classes will live together in one city.

Despite some misgivings among the student body about the unique dangers of the current geopolitical atmosphere on the peninsula, nearly all 260 students from over 60 countries are taking classes from Seoul.

Staff have set up office hours, the residence hall grows homier every day, and students from both classes have started to make friendships with each other. The process of moving in, learning to take a subway, stumbling over Korean etiquette, and once again building a new routine in a new place has both invigorated and exhausted students.

“Despite some misgivings among the student body about the unique dangers of the current geopolitical atmosphere on the peninsula, nearly all 260 students from over 60 countries are taking classes from Seoul.”

This semester’s Elevation, the set of orientation programming which takes place in every new city, received mixed reviews with some students feeling overwhelmed by the scheduling of events which started a day after their arrival. However, students generally agreed that the programming was engaging and informative.

“The compressed scheduled is a lot for a student to get ready, get oriented, and get into classes,” Dr. James Lyda, Minerva’s Director of Mental Health, noted, “But there’s a lot of really positive energy; especially seeing the students reunite, whether it’s within their class or meeting new students from other classes. So I think once the normal response to an abnormal situation –you know, stress levels–are able to subside for people, they will really be able to get a lot out of this.”

Several students complained about how the first assignments of the semester overlapped with Elevation, making it difficult to attend events. Qiqi Xu, 2019, noted that she had two assignments, disincentivizing her from engaging in Exploration Day activities. She was not the only one.

Suraj Paneru, 2020, acknowledged these concerns but highlighted the breaks in the schedule and Minerva’s message to students that they should decide for themselves which events to attend based on their own priorities. “I think it’s doable if you have your priorities set up,” he says.

Among the events of Elevation, the academic policy sessions led by Minerva’s Founder and CEO, Ben Nelson and Dean of Natural Sciences Vicki Chandler, on the first Sunday, stood out. It was the first chance for students to inquire into the policy changes that were implemented over the summer. Students’ concerns ranged from how late a student could be to class before they were marked absent, whether mental health crises could constitute an excused absence, and why the changes had been made in the first place. The most vocal students posed questions with detailed accounts highlighting how student life is not nearly as idyllic as the new policies appear to assume.

“In typical Minerva fashion, students have often bumped into each other at the local neighborhood restaurants and cafés.”

Dean Chandler and Dr. Lyda both made clear that there are ample mechanisms and safeguards in place for students struggling for a variety of reasons to get excused from class and that Minerva would be proactive about any academic delinquency to avoid students falling through the cracks. Dr. Lyda assures, “I have faith that it is a compassionate system.”

Minerva made it clear that the new system is meant to incentivize better student accountability and work quality.

In an interview after, Dean Chandler explained, “There are some students, usually not publically, who are glad that the policies are changing because some of the behaviors that happened last year were frustrating.” In addition to this, she noted that in the context of Elevation, the sessions for each of the classes were unable “to dig as deep into the topics as was needed.”

Despite the lack of a group consensus on the quality of Elevation events, students appear overall to be thoroughly enjoying their first week of city exploration.

Anthony Brigden, 2019, comments, “There’s a whole lot to do here and there are so many opportunities that I’m really excited about.”

The 2017-18 Resident Advisors ("RAs") introduce themselves at Elevation. | Photo: Louis Brickman

The 2017-18 Resident Advisors (“RAs”) introduce themselves at Elevation. | Photo: Louis Brickman

This belief was mirrored by Trent Hommeyer, 2020, who wants to really “know the city.” Xu, who spent the summer working in Tokyo, noted,  “Japan was very polished and overly nice, but here there is more rawness and life.”

In the past week students have slowly been exploring Gangnam, Hongdae, and the area around Hanyang University’s campus–the local university Minerva partnered with to sponsor student visas and offer local college resources.

First student impressions of the city tend to note that the city is clean, orderly, and walkable. Zhanchen Guo, 2019, summarizes, “It’s like that feeling when you go to the Apple Store.”

In addition to discovering parts of Seoul that will soon become familiar haunts and favorite cafes, students have begun discovering new potential friendships with members of the other class.

From a staff perspective, both Dean Chandler and Dr. Lyda commented on the positive energy they’ve witnessed amongst the two cohorts. Contrasting this viewpoint however, Hommeyer notes, “There’s still been a lot of separation between the grades.”

“The students moved into Gangnam, a district of the city known outside of Korea mainly for K-Pop star Psy’s viral Gangnam Style and within the country as a focal education, business, and plastic surgery center.”

Meeting students from the class of 2020 has been noted as one of the bigger challenges facing students living inside and outside the Minerva housing.

Yet, as Brigden pointed out, “We have that shared experience of Minerva, San Francisco, and the Foundation Year so we have a similar background.” In the weeks since Elevation, the classes have indeed been spending more time with each other.

The decision to combine the two classes for the year arose from several factors, ranging from financial to cultural concerns. The main reason appears to be that Minerva currently is trying to put off the financial and logistical burden of expanding beyond two simultaneous cities as long as possible.

Aside from the two dozen students who are living off-“campus” this semester in Seoul, the students moved into a nearly brand-new hotel in Gangnam, a district of the city known outside of Korea mainly for K-Pop star Psy’s hit Gangnam Style and within the country as a focal education, business, and plastic surgery center.

To a certain degree, students have enjoyed the luxury of living in a hotel, particularly South Korean amenities such as electronic toilets and heated floors. The room design has also nudged them to adopt the cultural norm of removing shoes at the entrance.

There has been some concern about the lack of opportunities for random encounters compared the San Francisco residence, as doors cannot be left open and students cannot congregate in the hallways.

“The hotel isn’t the best for spontaneous encounters,” Bridgen critiques.

Katie Hyon, Director of Student Affairs in Seoul, countered, “I get the idea of open doors and all that, but just put a list on your phone of people you want to meet.” She also pointed out that Minerva’s residence in Hyderabad next semester, which won’t be a hotel, will be all open doors and so there will be ample time during the spring semester for chance encounters.

“One of the trickier elements of moving over 200 college students from around the world into a hotel, particularly in a conservative country like Korea, has been attempting to ensure students respect the local customs and expectations.”

However, students have been up using the lobby, bumping into each other in the elevators, and hanging out in the hotel’s outdoor seating area frequently enough for serendipitous moments to occur. And of course, in typical Minerva fashion, students have often bumped into each other at the local neighborhood restaurants and cafés.

Despite the two classes coming together, the fact remains that each class is at its own unique stage of college, and life.  The goals of the semester for each thus naturally vary. This year, the Class of 2019 is focusing more on their thesis-like Capstone projects, solidifying their majors, and preparing for the sacred junior year summer internship, while the class of 2020, only in their second year, has more time to explore their cornerstone courses and decide upon what they want to study.

Xu describes her hopes saying, “I want to figure out how to have a balanced life because I realize that is one of the most important things from my experience, being able to balance Minerva with something outside.”

Hommeyer on the other hand noted, “Other people write about partnerships but I want to know the city. And it’s up to me.”

Goals for this semester are not only confined to the academic sphere. Hyon hopes this semester’s events will include more “global playlists”; Anthony on the other hand wishes to “make a creative project with photography or digital video.” Zhanchen’s largest goal is to make the city feel like a home away from home. “It’s not how many streets I go to,” he clarified, “But how many friends I make.”

One of the trickier elements of moving over 200 college students from around the world into a hotel, particularly in a conservative country like Korea, has been attempting to ensure students respect the local customs and expectations. Students have already caused complaints from the hotel, with some coming from quite obvious offenses such as loud, large groups hanging out in the lobby.

Others have resulted from customs ingrained deep in Korean culture but less obvious to outsiders, such as students hanging out at the entrance to the hotel drinking Korea’s popular rice liquor, Soju (소주), straight out of the bottle, a practice considered deeply disrespectful.

Minerva did provide some basic cultural etiquette and alcohol guidance during the first day of Elevation. However, as Hyon pointed out in an email to the student body, some customs seemed so deeply obvious to her, she had not anticipated needing to inform students on them.

As expectations have become more clear, students seem to have become generally more respectful of the hotel. There is however no question that Minerva’s unique combination of students, cities, and cultures will continue to serve as a social experiment at best and eviction at worst.

Despite the hardships of relocating to a different semester every four months, interacting with over 100 new faces, and readjusting to the Minerva style of life, the newest rotation in Minerva’s unique program seems to be off to a good start.

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