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North Hall senior leaps into Korean culture, language
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Grace Odenwald, a friend of Maris Mongero, right, wearing traditional Korean dresses called Hanbok at K-Style Hub.

A North Hall High School junior got “kind of enthralled with the (Korean) culture,” her dad said, and she decided she wanted to learn the language and culture.

So she did. Now, she plans to apply for college in Seoul.

Maris Mongero, now a senior, spent seven weeks in Seoul, South Korea, this summer, earning a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship to pay for it.

The language initiative is a U.S. State Department program to teach “less commonly taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs,” according to its website.

Those languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish.

Her dad, Travis Mongero, baseball coach and teacher at North Hall High School, said Maris started watching a video that had subtitles and “she got tired of those.”

Her mother, Sonya, teaches language arts at North Hall Middle School.

“She just did it all on her own,” Trent Mongero said. “She came to us and said, ‘Can I pursue this?’ We said, ‘Sure,’ not thinking she’d get it.”

“The best way to learn would be to immerse myself in the culture,” Maris explained. That led to seeking out the State Department program.

She traveled to Korea with 50 students from the U.S. It took an 11-hour flight, she said, and Maris was awake for all of it.

She lived with a host family in Korea: a mom and dad, younger brother and daughter her age.

The experience “was amazing,” she declared. “It’s hard for me to find bad things to say about it.”

Maris said the Korean culture was very much to her liking. The people are “very respectful,” she said.

Maris and her classmates attended school five days a week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Classes were in Korean.

She was in an advanced beginner class for Korean, she said. After the experience, she said she is a “low to medium” intermediate student.

”She explored much of Seoul when not in class, with classmates, with Korean friends and on her own.

“I explored the city, like, a lot. I often went to cafes by myself,” she said. “They learn English from a young age. Most everyone had a basic understanding of English.”

She said some Koreans wanted to talk with her to practice their English.

She said she would often “go to another district of Seoul.” She mentioned Gangnam, a wealthy area; Hongdae, a shopping district with “lots of cheap clothes,” restaurants and street vendors; and Itawon, which she described as a  “foreigner” district, where American food was readily available.

The Seoul subway was a highlight for the Hall County girl who does not drive. She used it extensively and praised its cleanliness and cost, with rides just $1 or $2.

“They’re like the nicest (subways) in the world,” she said, saying Seoul “is cleaner, safer (than other big cities), and it’s also just different.”

She raved about the food about as much as the subway.

“Korean food is, like, amazing. It’s very good,” she said.

Maris said she often had a snack for school called Kim Bap, which is seaweed, white rice and tuna. She also like Bing Soo, a dessert of shaved ice with condensed milk and either mango, chocolate or red bean sauce. Another favorite was cheese cutlet, a pork dish.

Shopping on the times for exploring was a favorite activity. Prices generally are cheaper than the U.S., she noted.

Maris said she will apply to college at Underwood International College, which is in “the heart of Seoul.”

“I loved it so much,” she said.

The school is “way more cheap” than U.S. schools, she said. A semester at Underwood is about $7,353, according to its website. That is a bit more than 50 percent of the cost for a semester at the University of Georgia, which is about $13,100.

Maris said she likely would study comparative culture and literature or culture, design and technology. Classes are taught in English. She said she would minor in Korean.

She said she has a “passion for writing and culture.” She won the North Hall High contest for young authors the past two years.

She noted foreigners can find jobs in Korea, and said, “I think I would like to live in Korea, definitely if I could.”

Maris said, “I’ve wanted to study abroad since the seventh grade.”

She might want to work in global marketing and she “definitely” wants to be an author — “maybe even start my own business – I’m not sure what that business would be.

“My heart was just changed this past year,” she said.