An Educational Journey from South Korea to the U.S.

Emily Eunyoung Sung said it was never really her idea to migrate from her native country Seoul, South Korea, to the United States.

“When I was 22, my parents really wanted my younger brother to get an American education,” said Sung, now, a 32-year-old nurse at Baptist Medical Center South in Alabama.

Sung, the oldest of three children, was a sophomore in college in Korea when her parents announced they were moving to America. Her parents moved to Los Angeles, California in 2004, initially leaving her and younger sister behind.

“We knew that when we graduated college in Korea, we would come to America,” Sung said, That was me and my sister’s plan.”

Sung earned a degree in fine arts in Seoul and she and her sister moved to Los Angeles in 2007, on student Visas.

“I already had my degree in Korea but, I was looking for a major to achieve my American dream,” Sung said.

Sung said her passion was art, but tuition at a four-year state school in California was too expensive because international students were not eligible to receive financial aid.

“We would have had to pay a tremendous tuition fee, almost three times more than citizens had to pay,” she said.

So, her education plans were briefly put on hold, she said.  As the oldest, Sung said, she had a responsibility to become fluent in English so she better help her family communicate in their new home country. She began taking courses to perfect her fluency. Sung said she was living with her diabetic grandmother at the time when catastrophe struck.

“One day she just collapsed,” Sung said.

When they arrived at the hospital at 3 a.m., a Korean nurse assisted her grandmother.

“They were asking so many questions, and I didn’t understand the medical terminology,” she said. “A Korean nurse helped me with everything, and she translated my grandma’s condition.”

Sung’s grandmother recovered quickly, and after three days she was discharged from the hospital. The experience made an impression on Sung, she said. She remembers being impressed with the atmosphere of the hospital and the level of care patients received.  It was a defining moment in her life.

“I said, I need to get a nursing degree to live in the U.S.,” she recalled.

Sung had never studied science, but she felt nursing was her calling. Her parents supported her decision and she began searching for affordable school options. At the time, tuition for schools in the California state system was overwhelming, she said.

So, she began taking pre-nursing courses at El Camino College, a two-year public community college located in the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County. The cost was a quarter of the price of a four-year university.

She graduated with her associate’s degree in 2013.  But that wasn’t enough. She learned that hospitals in Los Angeles were gearing up to only hire nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

Sung began looking for affordable out-of-state universities with good nursing programs. That’s when she stumbled across Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Tuition there was $8,000 a semester.

Her parents, who had started a packaging company in Los Angeles, agreed to pay for her education.

“I knew I could not fail,” Sung said.  “They worked so hard to support me.  So, I knew I had to succeed.”

She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in nursing in May 2015 from Auburn. It took her seven years to earn her bachelor’s in nursing because, she needed  to work while she was in school to pay for her education, and attending college was part of the requirement for her to remain in America.

Sung is now a nurse of the emergency department of her hospital. She said she enjoys her profession. 

“I love communicating with people,” she said. “It helps strengthen my English and it makes me feel more comfortable talking to people.”

She worked as a nurse in the hospital’s cardiovascular unit for eight months before her working visa expired. That’s when her hospital decided to sponsor her to get a green card. Employers can pay for the application process for a permanent employee to get a green card to become a citizen of the United States.

Sung was married on March 25, 2017.

Sung said she is grateful for her opportunities in the United States. “I think God helped me,” Sung said. “I really appreciate President Obama, because I started my international student career under his administration and he did lots of good things for immigration.”

She said she is also eternally grateful her parents support.

“My parents spent their lives to give me a better future,” she said. “I appreciate them so much.”