"Evidently, I'm now an honorary Korean because I liked it," she said, adding that sampling authentic food was one of the best parts of her two-week solo trip to South Korea in July.
"I'm not a picky eater. I tried everything they offered me," she said. Her hosts, nursing students who visited Indiana University Kokomo in early 2012, prepared many popular Korean meals for her. They did not expect she would like one of their favorites, a leaf filled with kimchee, a fermented cabbage mixture; fish and sauce, which "smelled terrible, but tasted good," she said, laughing.
Phillips, a sophomore in the IU Kokomo School of Nursing, planned to visit South Korea on a trip sponsored by the school. When it was canceled, she decided to plan her own trip.
"I had a close bond with them. I was so disappointed the trip was canceled, I decided to take the initiative and go on my own," she said. "Going by myself was intimidating at first. I've never been out of Indiana on my own, let alone out of the country."
Phillips took the 18-hour flight to Seoul, where two of her student friends met her at the airport. They took a four-hour bus ride to Jeonju, South Korea, where most of the nursing students attend Jesus University.
She wanted to see South Korea as its people see it, rather than as a tourist, so she stayed in friends' homes, not a hotel. She worried about communicating with her hosts, because while the nursing students spoke good English, their parents often spoke little or no English. Even without being able to communicate verbally, she said, her friends' mothers made it clear they were happy to have her visit their homes.
"You really feel welcomed when you are a guest in a Korean home," she said. "They treat you really well."
Her friends prepared her in advance for some cultural differences, like dressing more conservatively than she might have at home. Short skirts, short shorts, or low-cut tops were out of the question.
"It was very hot and humid, but if you wore a tank top, you would be looked at strangely by everyone," Phillips said.
She toured the nursing school at Jesus University and visited several ancient historic sites and temples.
"I didn't want to see something I could see at home. It was exciting to me to see these places that have so much meaning to the South Korean people."
Her hosts also took her to a world music festival in Yeosu, where she saw two of her favorite K-Pop music groups.
Phillips was surprised at how friendly people were, even those who did not know her. She traveled alone by bus twice. Her South Korean friends accompanied her to her bus stop and explained to the driver where she was going, and both times, strangers went out of their way to let her know when she had reached her destination.
"I was amazed at how much people wanted to help me," she said. "They were very friendly and welcoming to someone who was obviously a visitor to their country."
She hopes to go back in May 2013 with the School of Nursing, which is now accepting applications for a trip open to students of all majors. Phillips said she's interested in visiting while the universities are in session, to see how nursing students are educated there.
Linda Wallace, dean of the School of Nursing, is proud of Phillips' initiative in planning her trip.
"This trip opened the world to Harlee," she said. "She knows now that she can travel the world making friends. She went from 'I wonder if I can,' to 'I know I can.' That is very empowering."
Wallace said going to South Korea gives students a chance to experience what it is like to be a minority, so they can better understand patients not of their own culture.
"The students experience what it is like to be where you are obviously a minority, you don't speak the language, and you have to depend on the kindness of others," Wallace said. "This is a small part of what immigrants experience in our country, including when they need medical care. Our graduates will care for people of many backgrounds in their careers, and this will help them prepare for it."
For more information about the May 2013 trip, contact Lucy Tormoehlen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications for the trip will be accepted from now through Oct. 31.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.