From Russellville to Korea and back: RHS alum travels world to find her place in it
Since graduating from Russellville High School in 2011, Magda Francisco-Lopez has logged quite a few travel miles and gained new experiences and stories along the way.
Like many of her fellow RHS graduates, Francisco-Lopez attended Northwest-Shoals Community College and then the University of North Alabama, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 2016 in the area of entertainment business. “I really enjoy music, and I hope one day I can be an artist manager,” Francisco-Lopez explained. As she well knows, however, “music is a really hard industry to get into.”
While working a part-time job and trying to figure out her next steps in her career, she began learning about a program her sister was interested in: the EPIK program, English Program in Korea, which was – as the name suggests – seeking people to teach English in Korea.
“I had a couple of friends that were thinking about going to do it, and so I started hearing more about it and decided to jump on board as well,” Francisco-Lopez said. “After applying and being accepted, I went to Korea in February 2018.” She taught English in public and private schools, to mostly elementary-age children ranging from 5-12 years old.
Although she describes living in Korea as “a big culture shock,” with society and mannerisms “totally different from here,” she said people were also “really respectful and friendly.”
During her first year, she stayed in a little town close to the North Korea border, Hwacheon. She lived in an apartment complex where the other seven program workers also stayed. “We talked to each other and became friends,” Francisco-Lopez said.
The city “was very quiet and kind of reminded me a little bit of Russellville, but it was very different because there were a lot of Korean soldiers there,” The town was one of the training areas for the military. “They were just there practicing, and it was really interesting to see,” she added. “Nobody spoke English there, and I had to learn the language just to help me get by.”
Francisco-Lopez said it wasn’t too difficult for her to learn the language – though while some people say they can learn the alphabet in a day, it took her about a week. “It was easy enough for me to learn, but I still feel I’m not advanced, though I can get by.”
A fellow UNA student, from Korea, had returned to his home country and was a big help to Francisco-Lopez. “He helped me a lot, and that made a difference. I didn’t know anybody else, and I had to open up and become more friendly and try to make friends because it does get lonely, and you get homesick sometimes.”
Francisco-Lopez said she initially only expected to stay for around a year, but her feelings changed after experiencing what it was like. “It went really well, and I really fell in love with their culture and decided I wanted to stay a lot longer.” After finishing her year-long contract, she came home for two months to visit family before returning. The second time, she stayed for three years, living the first two and a half years in a bigger city, Anyang, located closer to Seoul.
“That’s when COVID hit, and that’s why I stayed a lot longer,” she explained. “I was hearing, and my parents were saying, that I should come back home, but I decided to wait it out.” After a while, travel bans made it difficult to get permission to return home.
Francisco-Lopez said transportation options in Korea included public buses, subways and trains. “It’s convenient and cheap, and you get places in no time. It’s really easy to understand once you get a map, especially after getting used to it with a couple hours of practice,” she explained. “I wish we could have more transportation options over here.” Though she enjoyed making use of the public transport options, Francisco-Lopez also spent a fair bit of time walking.
Apart from enjoying living in a different country and meeting a lot of new people, Francisco-Lopez said she discovered she really enjoyed teaching English. “It made me smile just to help,” she explained. “I really love helping people and working with kids, and I love teaching them and watching them grow.”
While teaching in public school in Korea, she taught 22 hours of English per week. At her first assignment, the school was small, and she taught no more than four children at once, with the smallest class having only two.
“The students were very engaged, and they always had a lot of fun and were very interested in new people,” Francisco-Lopez said. “During recess, they would ask me to play with them. They were really respectful and fun to teach. They liked trying to talk to me more and practice their English.” Francisco-Lopez described her time in Korea as “very rewarding,” adding she’s glad she took advantage of the opportunity when it came her way.
While in the second school, a private school in Anyang, she helped students with preparing speeches. “I had one student, a little girl in fifth grade, and she had a big speech coming up,” Francisco-Lopez said. “She was really feeling down, and she was really shy and didn’t want to speak in front of people.” Francisco-Lopez said she encouraged her, telling her she could do it and to keep trying. “I helped her after hours and also just let her practice,” and she wound up doing really well, placing second. “It felt amazing getting to see her do that. She really smiled, and it was wonderful to be part of helping her make all that happen.”
Francisco-Lopez said she also enjoyed going on field trips with the children, including to a strawberry farm. On another occasion, she learned to ski while on a field trip. The children were practicing and asked her to learn with them.
While in Korea, Francisco-Lopez also got to take advantage of opportunities to travel to other countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. She spent about two weeks in Japan and around four days each in the other places.
While she admires the beauty of the Japanese language, Francisco-Lopez said she doesn’t really speak it. Despite the language barrier, she said she managed well. “Everyone was really friendly, and people would always try to help me if I got lost,” she added. She said the best part of her time in Japan was getting to experience the food. “They have really cute cafés, and I noticed there a lot of coffee drinkers over there. I also noticed this in Korea.”
Another of her favorite things about her time in Japan was getting to see old shrines. “It was really interesting,” she said. “They have a lot of mountains, and I had to climb, and I’d get tired a lot, but I told myself I had to push through, and it was worth it.”
She also visited Vietnam, noting she got to see what it was really like during the rainy season – which involved a lot more rain than she realized. While there, she visited the capital city, Ho Chi Minh.
She said she decided to come back home toward the end of her contract in 2021. She hasn’t been back to Korea since. “It was a hard decision for me because I really enjoyed it,” Francisco-Lopez explained. “It was really rewarding helping the kids learn English, and the culture is amazing, but I had to think about my future here as well – consider settling down with a secure job and being closer to my family.”
When she got back to Russellville, it was time to think about possible next steps. The daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, Francisco-Lopez was born in Florida. Her family background, along with her recent experiences teaching English, made her a good candidate for a role in the Russellville City Schools system, where she now works as an English language learner aide.
“I felt like education is really what I know, so I’m glad I was able to find a position in that field,” she explained. Primarily, Francisco-Lopez works at Russellville High School, helping translate for students and assisting with communicating with families and helping them with paperwork and other issues. In the summer, it also involves helping with school registration. Francisco-Lopez said she’s glad to be able to use her Spanish and English skills to help students and their families.
While she’s not sure what she might do in the future, for now, she’s enjoying where she is and what she’s doing. Being part of the school system provides other opportunities, such as helping with the annual Hispanic heritage program. “We all appreciate getting to show the community more about our cultures in Central America,” she said. “I saw all the students commit to working hard and shine when they did their amazing performances. It was a wonderful show. When I was in Korea, we had something similar where the kids got to show traditional dances, and I enjoyed that a lot, too.”
Stephanie Mayfield, a Spanish teacher at Russellville High School, said Francisco-Lopez is great to work with. “As a bilingual paraprofessional, Magda has been instrumental in helping the English language learners at Russellville High School,” Mayfield said. “She connects with students and helps them feel at ease with being in a new country.” Mayfield said Francisco-Lopez provides real-world examples for them and pushes them to strive to be successful and become college- and career-ready as they begin preparing for graduation. “She’s a wonderful friend and colleague, and we are blessed to have her at Russellville High School.”
Fellow RHS EL aide Edmund Martinez described Francisco-Lopez as “an invaluable asset to our EL program at RCS,” citing her ability “to bring comfort, relatability and a strong sense of cultural identity to our students” as “truly remarkable.” He said her impact really makes a difference. “She embodies the qualities of an exceptional role model, and her dedication and contributions make a significant difference in the lives of our students.”
RHS science teacher Heather Boyd echoed these sentiments. “Magda works really well with our students,” Boyd said. “She has helped me with labs and translates for my ELL classes and assists with lessons. That’s a big asset for my classes, and she has a very good rapport with students. She genuinely cares and wants to help our students.”
RHS principal Dr. Jeremy Madden said Francisco-Lopez does “an excellent job,” confirming her impact. “She not only works as a paraprofessional with our EL students but also assists with their acquisition of English, interprets for families and helps in lots of other ways. We’re very fortunate to have her at our school. She knows the struggles and understand what our students are facing as they try to learn the language, and we appreciate everything she does to help.”