SHS grad studies in South Korea
by Heather Baggett
Oct 22, 2013 | 2187 views |  0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Maya McKenzie poses for a picture on the coast of Ulsan during her month-long study abroad program in South Korea.
Maya McKenzie poses for a picture on the coast of Ulsan during her month-long study abroad program in South Korea.
One Sylacauga High School alum had a whirlwind summer that inspired a desire for world travel in the future.

Maya McKenzie, daughter of Angela McKenzie of Sylacauga and Tony Cherry of Butler and granddaughter of Louise McKenzie and the late Henry McKenzie, participated in a month-long study abroad program in South Korea in conjunction with her studies at Alabama State University.

McKenzie’s trip to South Korea came about after some of her professors at ASU urged her to consider a study abroad program. When it was first mentioned, McKenzie said “that’s not my thing.”

The state of Alabama in general and the city of Montgomery in particular have a special relationship with South Korea because of the Hyundai automotive plant. So the study abroad program to South Korea was a natural fit for ASU, which is located in the capital city. McKenzie received information about the program through a campuswide email message. She applied and was accepted. So in July, McKenzie and fellow ASU students Amanda Price and Shannon Green boarded a plane with faculty advisor Kim Smith bound for a spot on the other side of the world.

“That’s the longest flight I’ve ever been on, 14 hours on the plane,” McKenzie said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I’m glad I had the opportunity.”

In addition to meeting South Koreans and learning about their culture, McKenzie had the opportunity to learn about a lot of different cultures in the course of meeting other students participating in the international program at the University of Ulsan, which is located in Namgu, Ulsan City, South Korea. The program consisted of students from Costa Rica, China, Poland, New Zealand, Japan and other countries.

“It was a good opportunity to be outside my comfort zone and engage in something I’ve never experienced before,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie and her classmates were basically submerged into the South Korean culture while there. They did not have an interpreter, which made ordering meals at restaurants a little tricky, she said.

“You get off the plane and you go through customs and you’re in Korea,” she said. “The language barrier was evident. “However, at the university, the students were studying English. They were so excited to sit down and talk with me and learn English.”

In addition to helping some South Korean students with their English, McKenzie got some help learning Korean as well.

“Off campus there was a restaurant, Mom’s Cuts, which is kind of like a Popeye’s chicken joint,” McKenzie said. “We’re trying to point (to the items on the menu board). It took us like 10 minutes to order a meal. I had a reality check. Part of the program, we took Korean language classes. In the span of a week, I was able to read Korean. It’s like a kindergartener’s level. That was such an awe-inspiring part of the trip. I can read Korean now.”

Prior to making the trip, McKenzie and her family were aware of the political tensions between North Korea and South Korea, which had been making headlines in the U.S.

“That was a big part of what my mom was concerned about,” she said. “It’s not as magnified as (it is in) American media. They (South Koreans) have it in the back of their minds.

“We took Korean history classes, seminars. Another thing that was interesting is that all of their males have to serve a certain period of time in the military. They do a certain period of time and then they go to school. So the guys our age there were behind us in school. That was an interesting dynamic.”

While McKenzie said she is open to traveling to South Korea again if the opportunity presents itself, there are a lot of other places she’d like to experience as well.

“I definitely want to explore the world,” she said.

McKenzie hasn’t slowed down after placing her feet back on American soil. A week after returning from South Korea, she packed up her belongings to move across the country to Los Angeles for a year-long fellowship at a law firm, Munger Tolles & Olson. The firm offers three full-time positions in its Los Angeles office to students of diverse backgrounds who have graduated from college and plan to attend law school.

McKenzie said she’s enjoying her time in California and is thankful for the opportunity to gain “real experience” and “do substantial legal work” before entering law school. The aspiring lawyer recently took the Law School Admission Test and is now in the process of applying to law schools around the country. McKenzie said she is applying to about 23 law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Georgetown and New York University. She hasn’t decided on a particular type of law she’d like to specialize in just yet.

While learning more about her future career, McKenzie is also enjoying being in a place far different from her hometown of Sylacauga.

“I fell in love with LA when I got out here,” she said. “It’s such a different place than anywhere I’ve been before. I love it. It’s totally diverse and a good place to be.”

McKenzie may appreciate the differences in the places she’s been, but she’s also thankful for the start she got in the small town where she grew up.

“I don’t know how many people can say this about all their teachers from kindergarten to senior year in high school, but I still have a good relationship with my teachers now,” McKenzie said. “It’s such a gem that we have such a great school system. It gave me the opportunity to be expressive, and there were teachers that encouraged me to reach above and beyond.”

McKenzie also credited her supportive family, friends and church with helping prepare her for life outside of Sylacauga. In addition to preparing for her career, McKenzie is laying the groundwork to give back to others.

“My experience with the schools has inspired a goal to start a nonprofit to give kids college curriculum prep and encourage kids to get involved in extracurricular activities,” she said.

Her idea to pursue a career in law began while working on a mayoral campaign for Jesse Cleveland.

“I remember working on one of his mayoral campaigns,” she said. “I only like licked envelopes or something, but I guess he’s the one that started me on this path.”

A trip to Florida State University’s College of Law is where McKenzie’s “eyes were opened to what you can do with a law degree. My focus shifted there. I guess Mr. Cleveland introduced me to the concept.”

McKenzie admits to having a keen interest in politics, but much like an experienced politician, is not ready to commit to pursuing a political career just yet.

“I won’t say that’s off the table, but I want to focus on law right now,” she said.

Contact Heather Baggett at