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Omaha Magazine

Riding the 'Korean Wave'

Apr 26, 2023 03:03PM ● By Megan Bartholomew
gen o. molly samboll

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Though Jeonju, South Korea, may be 6,500 miles away, it’ll never remain far from Molly Sambol’s heart. The Fulbright scholar recently returned to Omaha after a year of teaching English abroad. 
As one of only a small percentage of Fulbright Scholarship recipients among U.S. college students, Sambol used her funding to dive deeper into one of her passions: Korean culture. 

Toward the end of her time at Duchesne Academy, Sambol experienced a profound awakening to the glamorous world of ‘K-pop.’

“I like to joke that there was a boy band-shaped hole in my heart after One Direction broke up,” Sambol laughed. “By the time graduation rolled around, I was ‘the K-pop girl.’”

While studying at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Sambol connected with a few students from South Korea and joined them in establishing the campus’s Korean Culture Club. 

“It was just these girls teaching everyone about their education system, politics, and language all on their own, which is pretty awesome,” Sambol said. 

Also while at UNL, Sambol completed a month-long study abroad at Korea University, one of the country’s prestigious SKY—an acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University—institutions. There, Sambol enrolled in Korean language courses, classes on Korean culture, and more. A favorite of hers was ‘Mass Media and Pop Culture,’ in which she learned about Korean history through various media platforms such as music, television, and newspapers. As soon as she boarded the plane home, she knew she had to go back. 
That’s where Fulbright came in.  

“I knew there were programs that would allow someone like me, especially with a teaching background, to go and teach in South Korea,” Sambol recalled.

After attending a presentation with UNL’s Fulbright coordinator, Sambol took advantage of every available resource (as well as extended quarantine time) to perfect her application. Those resources included reviews with the program coordinator, peers, and a dedicated panel provided by UNL faculty and staff. 

“What’s funny is I had never really even heard of Fulbright before applying, I just knew it was a funded thing to get me back over to Korea,” Sambol said. “Then I got it, and family members told me, ‘Molly, that is a big deal!’”

Embarking in early 2022, Sambol’s Fulbright program in South Korea began with six weeks of training in language, culture, and other courses to prepare her and 80 fellow student-teachers to adjust to life in a new environment. 

Sambol was matched to teach at Sangsan High School in Jeonju, with a second-year Fulbright teacher from New York, Carolyn Acosta. According to Acosta, Sambol was a natural when it came to connecting with pupils. 

“Molly is a very kind and welcoming teacher and was always willing to listen,” Acosta says. “As a result, she was able to become a safe space for many of our students.” 

The pair’s main responsibility was teaching a conversation class to the school’s already mostly-fluent first-year classes. Students met weekly to practice grammar and vocabulary as a supplement to their normal English courses. However, Sambol’s deepest connections were with their upper-level classes. 

Sambol and Acosta taught two senior students in an advanced composition class, to whom they are now offering friendly support as the seniors take their college entrance exams and begin to draft applications.

“We really built a deep connection with our 11th-grade students, to the point in which they threw us a surprise going away party,” Acosta recalled. “Both of us almost cried—it just goes to show how much we were able to bond with our students.” 

One of the favorite activities all-around was a pen-pal program, which Acosta and Sambol established with American students back home—notably Ms. Reinhart’s World Culture class at Duchesne Academy. 

“It started as just a one-time assignment, but the students took it even further, connecting on social media to learn more about each other’s daily schedules, classes, and lifestyles,” Sambol said. “It was very cute seeing them get excited about learning new cultures!” 

Now both back home in the States, the two teachers are still trying to bring pieces of Korea to their friends and family in New York and Nebraska. 

Sambol continues to spread her love of Korean culture through continual language-learning, sharing new dishes with her family, and of course, binging Korean dramas. One of her favorite ways to experience Korean history while abroad was visiting historic sites and renting a hanbok, a traditional Korean garb.

“I would find any excuse to immerse myself in the country’s history with hanbok. You need to pick something up in Seoul? Let’s wear hanbok. Your friends are visiting? Let’s go wear hanbok! Any opportunity, I am always 100% down for hanbok.” 

Though there are less frequent reasons to don her favorite apparel now that she’s back in Omaha, there may be some opportunity to spot Sambol in her favorite outfit around Duchesne’s campus this fall—where she intends to continue pursuing her passion for teaching as an AP English instructor. 

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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