fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

Reflections on the Fulbright Taiwan Experience

It is with great anticipation and excitement that I embark on this new journey of exploration, discovery and learning through the Fulbright Taiwan program. I deeply appreciate the thorough preparations and full support from the dedicated staff of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan); I felt well taken care of from as early as the pre-departure stage.

My first Fulbright experience was in Japan fifteen years ago. It was an amazing experience both culturally and educationally. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in educational visits almost annually in countries such as Spain, Germany, Cuba, South Africa, and China, yet Fulbright’s mission to provide participants from both the United States and the host country with the opportunity “to gain a little more knowledge, reason and compassion, while reducing conflict” sets this program above the rest. Working with Fulbright means collaborating with people who are passionate about international educational exchanges and devoted to promoting world peace.

I.  Fulbright Taiwan Group 2017

We are a diverse group from eleven educational institutions in different parts of the United States, and each group member brings with them extensive international experiences, interesting personal backgrounds, and professional accomplishments. All participants feel very honored to be selected for this inaugural visit. I have enjoyed visiting different schools and organizations with them, exchanging ideas and discussing our experiences on a daily basis.

In this brief reflective summary, I hope to share what I am learning each day during this Fulbright Taiwan experience through official briefings, collegial conversations, personal observations, and group discussions.

II.  Taiwanese Culture 101


(Being ethnically Chinese, this topic is culturally relevant to me and therefore comes first!)

I am delighted with all the Taiwanese food I have tasted in these two weeks. It is complex, interesting and much more diverse than I had expected, bringing together traditions of north and south, east and west, savory and sweet, land and sea. In addition to the traditional breakfast of rice roll, soy drink, and marvelous side dishes, I’ve discovered certain dishes that previously I had only read in Chinese novels — tendons cooked in wine, chicken soup made with abalone and mushroom, sesame pancake filled with red bean, and a zillion street foods and snacks. You can sample the infamous “stinky tofu” which is actually quite delicious if you can get past the smell,  “beef noodle” that is so well-known in Taiwan, or “oyster omelet” that is a staple meal for many. As a foodie, I have found a new food heaven in Taiwan. I also appreciate that Taiwan has kept some of the regional favorites such as Shanghai-style fresh-grilled buns, Shandong hand-cut noodles, Chengdu spicy hot pot, and Hong Kong Dim Sum. A simple steamed bun and cup of green tea can be just as satisfying as a gourmet meal at an upscale Hakka restaurant. There’s also excellent Japanese food that is as good as what one would find in Japan, or western style food that rivals the traditional offerings in countries where they are originated. Taipei seems to be a fantastic place for a food lover like me who is eager to try new and delicious foods at every turn.

Markets in Taiwan

Through local Taiwanese friends, I am learning about the different local markets — night markets, sunset markets, organic farmers markets, jade market, and even more. Our tour through Taipei’s Ningxia Night Market gave me a real appreciation for the ingenuity and hard-working ethics of the Taiwanese entrepreneurs. Their work and legacy often span through two, three, or more generations. For many successful businesses, the profits are high enough that even after getting a good education, the entrepreneurs’ children may return to assist their parents on weekends or during holidays, maintaining the family unit. The Sunset Market is specially designed for working individuals, primarily women, who need to shop after work between 3 pm and 7 pm, and provide their families with a healthy meal. The organic farmers market can rival the best of its kind in the United States; Taiwanese fruits and vegetables abound in these markets, many varieties grown in the south where the climate is more conducive for farming. In general, there’s an emphasis on health and eating well, quite progressive in terms of the promotion of personal and community wellness.

Getting around: MRT and Other Modes of Transportation

The good, efficient MRT in Taipei allows even first-time visitors to explore the city with ease. It is organized, inexpensive, and easy to use. The system is designed to be user friendly and requires little or no planning. People wait in line patiently and it does not feel rushed. The MRT card is a great way to introduce the Fulbright participants to the public transportation system of Taipei and the group appreciates it.

The train system seems to be equally dependable and efficient. We are able to get from north to central Taiwan in a flash, then again from south to east, and southeast to north again. It is used by locals and supplements the use of individual vehicles, thus contributing to the environment and energy use.  In smaller towns, we rely more on taxis for shorter rides.  In Taipei, my friends shuttle me around in their car but much time is used searching and waiting for parking space. The other alternatives are, of course, walking and biking. As a cycling enthusiast that cares deeply about sustainability of our environment, I am happy to report that there is a growing bike culture in Taipei. We have been told that the Giant Company manufactures bikes, helps with the development of bike lanes, and promotes the use of bike lanes for touring all over Taiwan.

III.  Societal Issues in Taiwan

Human Resources

We are told that the greatest asset of Taiwan is its people, that human resources is the primary reason that Taiwan is competitive and successful in the world market today. The country is described in our orientation as, “…a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources [so it is necessary and essential to] develop the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills….” Yet knowing that Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world at 1.12%, depending on this particular source of resource may not be sustainable. Better long-term planning is important, especially in education and social services.

Lower Birthrate

It seems that Taiwan’s declining birthrate has a direct impact on its educational system. Many of the universities we visit share the same story that the lower birthrate means fewer students are entering the universities. For top tier public universities, this directly impacts the quality of the new student cohort. For the private universities, decreasing enrollment numbers translate to less revenue. To cope with this trend, these institutions are coming up with creative entrepreneurial schemes and strategies, allowing more flexibility and innovation. There’s an even stronger interest in admitting international students to fill the vacant spaces, although not just for economic reasons. To enhance the offering of international courses taught in English, these universities are seeking more foreign professors and visiting scholars.

The United States continues to be Taiwan students’ number one choice for overseas studies. More than 20,000 study in American higher education institutions, making Taiwan the seventh sending country of international students to the United States. On the other hand, we hear from some of the more seasoned educators at the best universities in Taiwan that while in the past many Taiwanese students were eager to study abroad at Cornell, Harvard, MIT, and other US universities, now it takes much more marketing and recruitment for them to seek these opportunities. It is possible that the stronger economy makes those who can easily find jobs in Taiwan more eager to stay closer to home. It would be an interesting study to look at the profile of Taiwanese students studying abroad — past, present and future — to explore the correlation to the country’s economic growth, among other influencing factors.

Medical Care and Health System

This is one area in which the United States can really learn from Taiwan. The health care system in Taiwan meets the global standard, has English-speaking doctors, and provides excellent care, but is underfunded and its workers underpaid. My limited understanding of the system here seems to show that it is made accessible to all, regardless of economic and social status. It also gives flexibility of choice and a responsiveness that is uncommon in the U.S. In Taiwan, people can choose which doctor they go to and when. Health of the people is valued and services made available to all. A simple medical procedure or a hospital stay would not bankrupt an average person. However, in a conversation with a Taiwanese friend, he expressed concern that because this medical system does not have long-term elderly care, he must care for his 92-year-old father himself without even partial support from the government. His hope is that this will change in the future. Considering that there will be fewer children born each year, the implication of who will care for the older generation may surface as another societal issue.

Women’s Empowerment and Gender Issues

The ministry of foreign affairs briefing informs us that newer policy guidance requires mandatory 8 hour of training for any government agency and education that better prepares children to respect gender equality. There has been change in civic laws that encourage the husband to take leave when a couple has a baby rather than just the traditional maternity leave. This alleviates social pressure that puts childrearing on women only and also gives men a chance to be with their newborn if desired. In education, there are no restrictions. Women often do better on examinations and the government doesn’t set a quota, so more than 50% of women pass the Foreign Service exam. The current president of Taiwan is a woman, and we also notice that there are female top administrators, including those who are in the president’s role, at some of the universities we’ve visited.

Regarding the LGBTQ community and their rights, the representative says that it is an issue that the Taiwanese people should respect. Recently, the legislature that pushes law to support gay marriage is facing opposition by religious groups. The question remains — “What is the best way to address this issue without diminishing support?” Like in the United States, this is an emerging issue that requires more community dialogue.

IV.  Taiwan, U.S., and China Relations

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) represents the U.S.  Joe Bookbinder tells us that while it is not exactly like a consulate, it performs very similar functions. The Taiwan Relations Act puts USA in the position to help Taiwan maintain self-defense capability, permission to sell military weapons, and provide training as needed. Bookbinder states that “…an increase in stability — economic, trade and cultural exchange — in the Taiwan Strait is good for the region, and it gives confidence to the people of Taiwan.”

Fulbright seems to work very closely with AIT in the coordination of its programs and in carrying out the directives of the U.S. government. Therefore, being a part of the Fulbright program is quite prestigious in terms of access to the highest level of government and education. It opens doors and provides us with the opportunity to visit the country’s best universities and each school’s higher administration and faculty. The English Teaching Assistant program places a network of nearly 100 young American teachers at local schools all over the island, creating an ambassador corps for the United States while teaching English to Taiwanese children.

There seems to be unspoken tension between the Mainland China and Taiwan, at the same time they have close economic ties and are interdependent.  The United States keeps a careful diplomatic relationship with both. Being a diplomatic officer here resembles that of a waltz dance with graceful strides and harmonious steps.  On the one hand, our country promises to support Taiwan’s security and democracy, yet we still keep a dance card with China. My impression is that while people are willing to discuss the Taiwan-US-China relations, there’s much that is not said. Although it seems to be a plum assignment to be assigned here, there are also the factors that make Taiwan a second or third level choice for Foreign Service officers, considering the potential for natural disasters and the more than 1600 missiles directed at Taiwan from its close neighbor.

V.  Education in Taiwan

Taiwan has a population of over 23 million and 1.3 million are students. There are around 160 universities so students have a lot of choices, even though the top tier universities can be much more competitive and selective. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 21,000 students in Taiwan choose to study in the US annually, making our country the top choice for overseas studies. Japan trails behind as second at 8,500 students. Parents play a major role in decision making, even at the graduate level. Our admissions landing page must keep the parents in mind and use traditional Chinese [Mandarin] rather than simplified version as in China.

Without exception, our group is very impressed with all the schools we are visiting on this Fulbright visit. We are finding many English-only programs, bilingual programs, and courses offered in dual languages (Mandarin Chinese and English). The number of English courses offered at each institution is quite high, from a few hundred to nearly a thousand, and not limited to humanities. This is high as compared to what we know in other countries where the dominant language is not English. It would be interesting to do a comparative study among similar programs in different countries to see how such programs are best developed and utilized. At Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, an interesting triangular alliance is being formulated between a Chinese University in Mainland China, Wenzao Ursuline, and an American University (possibly Fort Hayes) to create a pipeline of students from China to study English in Taiwan in preparation for a degree program in the U.S. It might be a good model to use that can facilitate international exchanges among the three countries.

At the same time, Chinese language instruction is also readily available at these schools, providing visiting students the opportunity to learn the language and engage in the local culture. For example, at National Tsing Hua University, it is possible to either take a two-year Chinese language program and become proficient enough to do a full-degree program in the Humanities or to enroll in a basic, survival Chinese course while taking courses in English. Almost all the universities we have visited on this trip has some kind of Chinese language program, with some much more developed and extensive than others. Those that offer enough liberal arts curriculum in English attract more American students, since getting enough credits for their time abroad is becoming more important to our students. Pre-approval of courses also encourages students to study abroad.

Tuition and fees are astonishingly low. A Global MBA program at NCTU costs $5,000 a semester instead of the $50,000 price tag one would expect to find in the United States for a comparable program. Education in Taiwan might be a more affordable and accessible alternative for our students given the high cost one can expect in the U.S. system. It may also be an ideal option for underrepresented students; many often shy away from studying abroad due to the high costs that they cannot justify or explain to their families. The challenge is to get students interested in Taiwan as a potential destination for overseas studies — the cultivation process may take some time. Perhaps we should first connect our faculty with Taiwanese peers through professional activities and collaborative research, and then encourage them to lead short-term study abroad programs to Taiwan. Those smaller positive experiences could persuade students to return for longer-term stay.

A principal in Tainan told me about their desire to improve their English instructions. While English classes begin at third grade, the hope is that by next year, they will begin in first grade. Such change will require the approval of the local educational board. Meanwhile, the ever-growing number of ETAs is improving how English is taught in local classrooms all over Taiwan.

Chinese instruction is becoming more innovative and established at universities all over Taiwan. Soochow University, Taiwan’s first private university,has a comprehensive Chinese language center that houses the administrative offices, classrooms, language labs, student residence and facilities all in one building. It can accommodate both short and long-term programs, traditional and non-traditional students, and language and cultural learning on multiple levels. At other schools, bridge programs allow international students to enroll part-time in regular courses while taking Chinese, or full-time exchange students are provided with weekly free Chinese lessons.

Tamkang University’s Future Studies Program is among the most innovative and progressive that we’ve encountered during this Fulbright visit. This program focuses on foresight training and encourages students to put future implications into daily training. According to Tamkang’s President, their approach is to “imagine, plan, pursue, and realize” and to “develop the whole person”. They are open to all issues related to the future but teach methodology. This university tells us that they encourage their departments to develop new activity proposals every year for the program.

Proposed Follow-on Projects

  1. In order to share our amazing Fulbright experience with a wider audience, several of us have been discussing the possibility of presenting at the NAFSA Annual Conference in 2018. I have served on the selection team for the Annual Conference sessions many times and almost always present one or more sessions at each conference. Thus, I would be glad to take the lead in submitting a session proposal in consultation with a few others. It would be ideal to have at least one presenter from a Taiwan university (such as Dr. Bennett Fu on “strategic partnership”), one Fulbright office staff, and two Fulbright recipients serve on the panel.
  2. The second project is to bring more American students to study in Taiwan. To facilitate this, it seems best to reach out to my new connections in Taipei and partner with at least one Taiwanese institution that suits my own institution and programs. I have considered introducing the following PLNU faculty to their counterparts in Taiwan so that together, we can explore this potential partnership:·         Dr. Lael Corbin in Art to the faculty at the Taipei National University of the Arts. Dr. Corbin leads a short-term course to several European countries but is interested in exploring new locations in Asia or Latin America.

    ·         Dr. Walter Cho in Biology to Dr. Shang-Yin Vanson Liu, Assistant Professor of Marine Biotechnology and Resources at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaoshiung.

    ·         Dr. Barbara Taylor, Dean of Nursing School, to Dr. Pao Chia C. regarding the nursing programs at Chang Gung University and Cheng Kung University in Tainan.

    ·         Dr. Lindsey Lupo, Political Science and International Studies, about the School of Public Policy and Diplomacy at the National Chengchi University.

    ·         Investigate whom among our Anthropology faculty that may have an interest in the Center for Aboriginal Studies at National Chengchi University or courses on Taiwan’s Austronesian cultures at National Taitung University.

    ·         Dr. Deborah Ericksen, Dean of Education, to the ETA Program.

    ·         Dr. James Wick and Dr. Jae Kim, on a short-term program to Asia. They are planning to lead a group to China and Japan in 2018.

    ·         Share with President Bob Brower, Tamkang’s Future Studies Program.

    ·         Several other biology and chemistry faculty might be interested in many of the advance science research projects at various universities in Taiwan.

  3. The third is doing a comparison of countries that are experiencing a decline in birthrate, including Taiwan and Japan, and look at the impact this trend has on their educational system and what coping strategies each is using. Also, find out what other countries have experienced such a birthrate challenge and what has been done historically.
  4. To learn more about the linguistic tie between the Maori people in New Zealand, based on a previous intercultural communication course I co-taught from 2007-2011, and the aboriginal people of Taiwan.
  5. To find a way to return to Taiwan for a longer stay, both to improve my Mandarin Chinese and to pursue better understand of Taiwan and its relationship with its neighbors.


  1. Provide a short list of recommended readings to the group before we come to Taiwan. Having a more solid background on the history, politics, people, and culture would help prepare the group and enhance the learning once we get here.
  2. Review the itinerary with the country map and indicate the route that we would be traveling so that we can identify the specific locations where we’d be traveling to and familiarize ourselves with the geography, regional characteristics, and unique traits of each place.
  3. Please tell the universities to make their booklets and materials available but leave it to us to select what we would like to take. This both encourages sustainable practices and allows us to ask for what is not provided.
  4. Since the group includes many first-time visitors to Taiwan , the program should discuss general do’s and don’ts, business etiquette in Taiwan, and proper protocols to alleviate anxiety.
  5. Visit fewer universities — reduce the number in Taipei and spend more time in the south and southeast — and instead, spend more time at each rather than rushing through several in a day. This allows deeper conversation and engagement to encourage collaboration. It would also save time if Fulbright could send our brief individual biographies in advance to provide some background for our hosts, as well as one-page information about the history, purpose and special features of the Fulbright IEA Program.
  6. Provide a template for the recording of basic university information so that in addition to our daily notes, we will have an easy-to-read comparison by the end of the trip.
  7. Provide some time for direct interaction with students and one-on-one conversation with colleagues.
  8. It works well to have all participants rotate to assume the role of group leader/presenter for each visit and share the gift-giving responsibility.
  9. Good idea to provide the MRT card.
  10. Use the Kindness Main Station Front Hotel again. It is a small, clean, and convenient hotel that is near the night market and works well for a one-night stay. It serves a generous buffet of evening snacks and traditional breakfast in the morning. Same with the Just Sleep Hotel and the hot spring.

In conclusion, I have learned a lot in less than two weeks. It will take time for me to process all the notes I have been taking, but I am grateful for these daily new experiences in Taiwan. I would like to give my most sincere thanks to the Fulbright Taiwan staff and to my fellow IEA colleagues. I hope that all of us will bring many more American students to Taiwan and catalyze future international exchanges between Taiwan and the United States. Please call on us to assist with the recruitment and orientation of the next group; it will be our pleasure to give back. Thank you for this amazing and transformative educational experience!

Good pieces need to be seen.


Picture of Sandy Soohoo-Refaei

Sandy Soohoo-Refaei

Sandy Soohoo-Refaei, an active international educator for more than 30 years, is the Director of the Office of Global Studies at Point Loma Nazarene University and works with education abroad, partnership and exchange programs. She was elected to the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Board of Directors in 2013 and served as the Vice President for Professional Development & Engagement (2015) and Vice President for Member Relations (2013-2014). A past chair of KC ISSS - International Student and Scholar Services Knowledge Committee, Sandy also served in recent years as a Coach in the NAFSA Academy, and a member on the Awards Committee, Membership Committee, Ethics Subcommittee, and Trainer Corps. A lifelong learner, she participated in the Fulbright International Education Adminstrators Program (Japan & Taiwan), Baden-Wurttenberg Seminar, the Summer Intercultural Communication Institute, Semester At Sea; and is a frequent presenter at professional conferences and a mentor to many students and newer professionals in the field of international education. In San Diego, Sandy serves the homeless, sings in a church choir, and is a regular volunteer usher at local theaters and concerts. She enjoys meeting and working with people from different countries and learning about their cultures.  

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fulbright taiwan online journal