An Unexpected Journey: How I Became a Master’s Student in Taiwan

The Decision to Come to Taiwan

I believe that it is nothing short of a miracle that I am in Taiwan. In order to understand how I got here, we have to go back to my undergraduate years. I enjoyed my four years at the University of South Carolina, a college in my home state where I found my best friends, subjects that intrigued me, and issues I wanted to stand up for. What I did not find, and still do not know to this day, is the answer to this question: “So, what are you going to do next?” I have always hated this question, no matter whether it comes from well-meaning strangers, family members, friends, or academic colleagues. It is such a loaded question, one that to me implies “I know what you are doing now is great, but you need to stop living in this moment and create a 5-year plan, specifically one that abides by our societal timeline – education, job, family, retirement.” Now I am not saying that people should not plan for the things that they want in their future, but other people have no right to stress us out with this question and their expectations of us. What’s worse is that it often comes after achieving a huge milestone: graduation, getting a job, or having a child. People are never quite satisfied with how we are right now, always hurrying us along to the next thing.

After hearing this question approximately one million times my senior year of undergraduate education, I started panicking, trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I knew that I could not move back to Spartanburg, SC, there were no jobs in Columbia that excited me, and although I had just gotten a chemistry degree, I knew that I didn’t want to go into the industry or do chemistry research. So, what did I want to do? My study abroad trip to Costa Rica at the end of my junior year was transformative. It’s where I learned how much I loved traveling, languages, and public health. I knew that my next step would have to combine all three of these things. During my research into graduate programs, I found that there was a paid 1.5-year Master’s in Global Health Program through this organization I had never heard of – Fulbright. It was also in a country I had heard of but did not know anything substantial about – Taiwan. 

In spite of this, I knew that this was my next step, this program was for me. I would find out later that I would be joining the inaugural class of this program, and that further confirmed that I was meant to be here, doing this. I went through the painstaking draft and editing process, met with campus advisors, completed an interview, and finally mustered up the courage to submit the application to Fulbright. Then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Honestly in the midst of all of my classes and preparation for graduation, I had forgotten about the application. That was until I was emailed that I was a semi-finalist. I didn’t get my hopes up, surely a lot of people were selected as semi-finalists. Then one Tuesday morning, bored in my genetics lecture, I casually checked my email. I was a finalist. I was going to Taiwan. I had to sit through the rest of the lecture and remain calm, pretending as if my life hadn’t just changed forever in that moment. I was so excited to have been accepted, but it was an entirely different battle getting my mother on board with my next step. I am quickly approaching my 11-month mark in Taiwan, so obviously and thankfully, I was able to convince her.

Living in Taiwan

The best part about living in Taiwan has certainly been the relationships I have formed here, with both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese people. Some of the people in my program have already become lifelong friends. I left America only to find the most awesome Americans. We have achieved so many victories, both small and large, in this first year, and sometimes we do mess up, such as when half the class missed our flight to Matsu Island for a conference, but these experiences we can now look back on and see how much we have grown. There are two friends in particular, Bonnie and Jaylynn, who have infinitely enriched this entire journey in Taiwan. They both remind me of so much of home, but rather than solely focusing on our pasts, we allow and support each other to grow in this new space. 

I am also grateful for all of the Taiwanese friends I have made. Many of these friends are also students in National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health, and some of the most thoughtful people I have ever met. My school-assigned buddy, Shin, helped the entire cohort register for classes, taking us from building to building on a hot summer day until we had every document stamped, our student ID cards secured, and all our fees paid. Shin has not left our side since the first day we met him, always inviting us out to experience parts of Taiwan that we wouldn’t see otherwise. Another friend, Demi, generously agreed to help me hunt for an apartment. The entire process was honestly so overwhelming, especially because I could not communicate with the leasing agents, but she was so quick to help and reassure me that I would find a nice place. I hope to return the favor when she moves to the US. There are so many people I could talk about, but the final person I will mention is YenChi. He was my partner for a program called International Companions for Learning (ICL) which paired a local and international student together with kids at elementary schools around Taiwan. Each week, me and YenChi would get together to Skype the kids, and at the end of the semester, we got to travel to Hsinchu to meet them. I loved talking to the kids through Skype but talking to them in person was even better. We all got to meet a few weeks before Christmas and it brought me so much joy to be able to get them Christmas presents, especially as I was feeling homesick about my first Christmas so far away from home. We made tangyuan, picked cherry tomatoes, ate spaghetti, played a traditional set of drums, and spent the entire day laughing with each other and reminiscing about the semester. This was such a great experience and I will be forever proud of my ICL kids and appreciative of our friendship. 

I am proud of the woman that I am becoming here. I have gone through so much personal growth here, partly because I have more time to reflect now than I ever did in undergrad, but also due to my new surroundings. My friends and I have been on numerous hiking adventures and being this close to so many breathtaking trails has been wonderful. There is always an opportunity to be in nature here which does wonders for our mental health. I also now take time to practice yoga more often and meditate, and that has allowed me to become a much more introspective, relaxed, and thoughtful person. I am sure of myself more now than I have ever been, and it amazes me that I have done all of this outside of the US, the only home I have ever known. Reading is another surefire way to grow and it has always been one of my favorite things to do, but in undergrad I do not think I read even one book for fun because there was always too much work to do. In 2020 I have already read 21 books, which is partly due to COVID-19 and the extra time we have had off, but also because I am making learning a priority now, and not just the form that is done in classrooms. I was reading a multitude of works by Black authors before the protesting in the US started over the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other lives that have been unjustly lost due to systemic racism and police brutality, but all of this has shed light on some amazing Black authors and stories. Some of my favorites have been The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth, and Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, to name a few. These books bring me so much joy because they are able to somehow perfectly articulate my experiences as a Black woman, as well as comfort me in a world that can be especially cruel. I love reading because no matter where I am, I can still feel connected to my home and my people, as well as escape from all of the overwhelming racism that is still prevalent in the world. I am glad to see Black authors finally getting the credit and recognition they all so greatly deserve.

Getting a master’s degree is hard. Learning Chinese has also been hard (but so rewarding, I honestly love it). Being a Black woman in Taiwan is hard. Before coming here, I knew that there would be challenges, but I could never have been prepared for the racism and isolation I sometimes feel here. These feelings are also why me, Jaylynn, and Bonnie get along so well. Bonnie is a true ally and an overall great person who is always leading others to reflect on their beliefs. Jaylynn is the only other Black American in our cohort (and also a great person in general), and I am so grateful to have another person here who completely understands my experience. They are both from the South (Bonnie went to Elon University, so we count her) and it is nice to have people who miss Bojangles’, Chick-fil-A, and soul food as much as I do. More importantly, we all can talk through our problems and worries and empathize with each other’s struggles. I feel such a disconnect being Black but not being in the US during all fighting for change that is currently happening. Black Americans and our allies are fighting for rights that have been stripped away for so long, and it is a weird feeling to see everyone doing their part to fight for our rights and feeling like I am not able to fully participate. I want to be out there with the protesters, but I am 8,000 miles away. I want to support the buying of books by Black authors from Black bookstores, but they don’t ship to Taiwan. I want to volunteer with programs that help Black youth, but that would require me to be there in person. There are many things that I do not miss about the US, but seeing people doing all they can to work towards a better one makes me want to be there. I know that my time here is limited, and I want to make sure that I take it all in, but I can’t help but miss the beautiful community Black Americans have created in a country that has oppressed them in every way. Not being able to help as much as I feel I could has just made me more energized to do my part in the fight for equal rights for all Americans when I return to the US. Being away has made me so much more appreciative of Black culture and proud of my people.

The Future

I still do not know what I am going to do next, or even where in the United States I will live. But that’s okay. I know that if you asked me today, tomorrow, and the next day, you would get a different answer regarding my plans. For the longest time, my answer was medical school, because that answer widened people’s eyes, put excitement in their voices, and made logical sense to them coming from me, a chemistry major with a mother who is a nurse. What didn’t make sense was someone who studied chemistry and who could speak Spanish at quite an advanced level electing to go to Taiwan with only a few public health electives under her belt, and absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin. But that is what I love about myself. I have learned through my time here that I do not have to please anyone but me, and that it is impossible to do otherwise anyways. So sure, you can ask me about my future plans, but just know that I am going to give you what you want to hear, not what I truly feel. I don’t know where life is going to take me next, but I know that I won’t let disciplines, location, racism, or qualifications stop me, especially not after this experience in Taiwan.

Managing Editor: Li-Hsin Ning 甯俐馨

Tamera Sullivan 蘇庭妮

Tamera Sullivan 蘇庭妮

Tamera Sullivan is 2019/2020 Fulbright Scholar pursuing a M.S. degree in Global Health at National Taiwan University. She graduated in 2019 from the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina with a B.S. in Chemistry, and a minor in Spanish. Her research interests include mental health, children’s health, and immigration. In her free time, Tamera loves reading, listening to podcasts, and exploring new places with friends.

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