Go Abroad —  for the Frisbee 

USAC Gwangju student finds her chosen family in Korea through Ultimate Frisbee networking.  

Celeste Irwin, USAC Gwangju 23

Going to a new country is exciting and exhilarating. It’s also a little frightening. But, in the end, mostly it’s liberating — especially when you haven’t yet been to any foreign countries. As I planned my study abroad, which also happened to be my first time leaving the U.S., I was so impatient to depart that I struggled to stay focused on school.  

I chose to go to South Korea because many of my friends had gone and said it was fantastic. My love for K-pop may have had a little bit to do with it, too (whoops). One of the things both my university and University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) said was that it is not a good idea to arrive before the program starts. Those who do fly in ahead of time may end up struggling with culture shock, feeling lonely, and sensing a lack of support. But, I thought, that was them. If I did it, it would be fine, right? 

Well, just because I am stubborn, I decided to head to Korea a whole month early. I wanted to sightsee in Seoul before I headed down to Gwangju to start my program. Honestly, this would have been a huge mistake if I didn’t find my family all the way around the world. Before I tell you who it is, let me give you a little background first.  

I am an avid Ultimate Frisbee player. What is Ultimate Frisbee, you ask? It is the love of my life. I started playing regularly in 2018 when I moved to Ohio and slowly started playing at higher and higher levels as the years passed. Most of my friends are Ultimate Frisbee players and I know most people in my area that play, too.  I also watch a lot of high-level games on YouTube or any other platform I can.  

I am a huge fangirl for a lot of players. In 2022, the World Flying Disc Federation hosted its quadrennial World Ultimate Club Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was at this tournament that I volunteered for a total of 41 hours, met so many of my role models, discovered many new role models, and (most importantly) met the team Baekho from South Korea. At this point, I did not know I was going to study abroad in Korea, but I was happy to make more connections with athletes from around the world.  

Fast forwarding from the championships to a few months before I headed to Korea, the Baekho team’s Instagram account announced an interest form for tryouts. I decided, why not, and filled out an application to see if I could get some playing time while in Korea. I also reached out to a player on the team and asked if she had any information about playing a pick-up (a.k.a. a game with a group of players) of Ultimate Frisbee in Korea. She gave me the contact information of someone to reach out to when I got to Korea, and I was pretty excited that I would already have a way to make friends.  

So, there I am, standing at the arrivals gate in Seoul, a month before my study abroad program in Gwangju begins. It’s a bright and early 5 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. It was rough, I was tired, and I really didn’t know what to eat — or where to eat.  

I spent that first day acclimating to the time change. On the next day, I was able to venture out and find some places to eat. On Thursday night, I went to a little park in Yangjae where there was supposed to be a pick-up and that was the start of it all. While I had been feeling nervous, tense, and insecure, as soon as I stepped onto that field and started playing, I felt right at home.  

All the people I met that night immediately accepted me and treated me like an old friend. That first pick-up was the start of me building my family in Korea. I met one of my now-best friends., And I met the captain of Baekho, who invited me to try out for the team.  

While there are so many stories of adventures with my Ultimate Frisbee family, the fact of the matter is I had a community that was always there to support me. I was in a country where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know the customs, and before that night, I didn’t really know any people at all. Throughout my time in Korea, I played for Baekho at countless pick-ups, in a few Hat tournaments, and with my school’s club team Ullive. I went with Baekho to the Korea Ultimate National Club Championships and together we won first place. I participated in my first-ever international tournament and traded jerseys with people from both Japan and Korea. I got to practice with the Korean Women’s national team and watch my teammates and friends compete in the Asian Oceanic Ultimate and Guts Championship.  

The amount of people I met by just playing Ultimate Frisbee still shocks me to this day. By the time I had to leave Korea, I wrote more than 50 goodbye notes to my found family. They ranged from short two to three sentence notes to over 1,000-word letters, and most were for ultimate Frisbee players. I know that without my community, I would have struggled to enjoy my time in Korea, especially since I still struggle to speak conversational Korean (I’m trying my best I promise!).  

Knowing what I know now about traveling abroad, I will always remember that everything will be ok as long as I find Ultimate Frisbee players. Really, it’s not about the fact that I play Ultimate Frisbee, it’s about the fact that I have a worldwide community of people I know I can feel at home with wherever, I go.  

So, if you’re wondering what the most important thing to do is when going abroad, the answer is to play Ultimate Fr — wait, I mean, find a community!