From unemployed to overjoyed: Photog student finds recession relief in Seoul

Lou Carlozo

It's two-thirds of a day by plane to slingshot halfway around the world from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea -- a monumental distance, by any reckoning, to escape the throes of the Great Recession.

But when Elizabeth Groeschen, a single 26-year-old Kentucky native, couldn't get anything going on the employment front, she decided to leave Chicago and return to Seoul, where she had spent two years traveling and working through 2008. And to hear Groeschen tell it, the everyday hazards of South Korean life -- everything from North Korean weapons tests to swine flu quarantines for travelers -- were worth braving to recover the sense of hope she'd lost trying to pursue her photography dreams in America.

"I had a free flight to Korea, a settlement allowance, free time to work on my photography and writing, four weeks of paid vacation and a bonus after completing the year contract," says Groeschen, who's teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in Seoul through 2010. "Then there's the convenience of life in Korea: walking to work, [free] school lunches ... and I found an affordable dance studio membership."

A church-going, affable graduate of Loyola University Chicago, Groeschen by no means fits the stereotype of a young, disgruntled American expatriate looking for the high life. Last year, she enrolled in Chicago's School of the Art Institute to gain more experience in photography, and found a job working for a production company.

Then came 2009, with a series of dark dominoes toppling in Groeschen's financial life. Let go from her job in January, she was then unable to qualify for financial aid at school, having lost her full-time student status. What savings she had left depleted in mere weeks and, as she put it, "I fell into a deep economic and emotional slump."