Gabby Cunningham, 17, is a high school senior from Middleton, Wis. During the past two summers, she participated in STARTALK Korean Language & Culture Academy, a free four-week program on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus in which students learn to communicate in Korean and explore Korean cultural traditions. They participate in interactive activities, visit Korean sites in the Chicago area, and create final video projects.

 Cunningham’s school counselor knew how much she loved Asian culture and suggested she try STARTALK. The experience was so transformative that she’s decided to be a Korean interpreter for her career.

Gabby’s story

STARTALK shows us different Korean cultural activities, food, clothing, and dances. My favorite part of the program is the dancing: Last year we did traditional dancing, and this year we did pop dancing. We do cooking and drumming, too. I can’t put into words how amazing this program is.

A lot of us in the program are interested in going to UW–Madison, so it was really helpful to get on campus, walk around, and make it ours for a summer. Even if we don’t go to UW–Madison, we’re given these resources on campus. I asked the director of STARTALK so many questions about UW–Madison and what to do post-graduation because I’m so terrified. It’s great having that ability to ask someone questions that my parents can’t answer.

At a certain point, I realized all of us in the program were a family. That was one of the greatest feelings. We got really close really quick. It was awkward in the first three days, but it was like a switch went off.

startalk Korean Language & Culture Academy

‘I came into the program expecting to learn Korean, but it was really just learning Korean with friends.’

Another big thing I appreciate is how into learning we are. Everyone is always interested, no one complains, everyone is just open ears and eyes. Even if you were having a crummy day, we tried our best to learn so that everyone else could learn. That attitude never changed for all of us throughout the program.

Oh—and the inside jokes. I love those. Any time we laugh is a good time.

The instructors make it easy. Jillian is a college student, but I wouldn’t even know because she treats me like a friend and even a family member!

I came into the program expecting to learn Korean, but it was really just learning Korean with friends. When I go home, I always have stories to tell my mom. She is so happy that I’ve made friends in the program. I was so scared of coming in, but it wasn’t even hard. We have similar interests, so that was already a bridge we can keep building on.

It almost felt like we weren’t even different ages. In school you’re separated by ages, but here we just get along and have a similar interest—it’s hard to see the difference sometimes. We hang out on the weekends, and we make sure to keep up with each other through social media. Even when we’re back in school, we make trips to see each other. My friend Mara and I didn’t even know we went to the same high school until we came into the program!

Once you start making those first friends, everything starts falling into place. We’re all brought here with a common interest, so it wasn’t that hard to knit our community.

STARTALK Korean Language & Culture Academy is a program of the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures and the Language Institute. It’s a nonresidential, noncredit program that requires no prior knowledge of Korean. For more information, visit startalkkorean.wisc.edu, email startalk@languageinstitute.wisc.edu, or call 608-262-1473.

Top photo: Gabby Cunningham.

Research assistance by Michelle Concepcion.