Few Taiwanese have been following the spread of the novel coronavirus in the US more closely than Steven Chen (陳俞亨), who works for the Ministry of Justice’s Agency of Corrections.
Earlier this year, he received admission offers from four American universities, and has accepted a spot at Temple University where he will enter a PhD program in criminal justice.
“I’ve no idea whether I’ll be able to go to the US this August because AIT [American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy in Taipei] is suspending new visa applications and interviews,” says Chen, who obtained his master’s degree in Scotland.
The university has told him that if he can’t attend in the fall, they’ll defer his admission directly to the fall of next year.
“That’s good, yet I wish to start my studies as soon as possible,” he says.
Like Chen, Huang Chu-hui (黃筑彗) previously studied abroad, and says that the pandemic won’t disrupt her plans to study abroad in the future.
“No matter the circumstances, I’m dead set on furthering my studies abroad. I’ve personally benefited a lot by stepping out of Taiwan. Studying overseas allows us to view things from a different perspective. I believe the pandemic will eventually come to a halt,” she says.
Huang, who plans to do a master’s degree in translation and interpreting in the UK, is currently enrolled at a university in Hong Kong. Since November, she’s been taking her final-year courses through the Internet while living at home in Taipei, due initially to the protests in Hong Kong, but more recently because of COVID-19.
“I’m quite familiar with the online teaching system, and I don’t think this will be a major factor preventing me from studying in the UK. I prefer face-to-face teaching, but there’s no need to put my educational ambitions on hold until the pandemic is over,” she says.
For a woman surnamed Lee (李), who prefers not to give her full name, the prospect of having to take classes via the Internet could be a dealbreaker.
Lee applied to screenwriting/scriptwriting courses at several schools in London.
“I’ve always had a dream of studying and working overseas, because I hope to bring my experiences back to Taiwan. To enter the film and television industries in English-speaking countries, I’ll need to elevate my English speaking and writing skills, and build connections within the film industry. The best way is by studying in the UK,” Lee says.
Lee says that for film studies and scriptwriting, it’s essential to be immersed in an English-speaking environment, engaging with classmates about productions and meeting industry figures in person.
“I don’t think these experiences can be replaced by online courses. If the COVID-19 pandemic ends before the summer, I’ll go to the UK this year. However, if the pandemic continues, and the university decides to do online teaching, I’ll defer to next year. I may stay in Taiwan for another year [but] it’ll probably be a difficult time to hunt for a job,” Lee says.
According to Pieter Funnekotter, CEO of the UKEAS Group — the education counseling company that helped Huang and Lee apply to British universities — around 10 percent of UKEAS clients in Taiwan who’ve yet to go abroad “are actively looking to defer their study plans, with the US and the UK being the two most-impacted destinations.”
The majority, Funnekotter stresses, are continuing to prepare themselves for studying overseas.
Not every Taiwanese studying in a coronavirus-impacted country has returned home. A woman surnamed Wei (魏), who prefers not to give her full name, is continuing with her program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Wei, who’s doing a master’s degree on Asian Studies, says she was attracted by the school’s reputation, as well as by Singapore’s proximity to Taiwan and the lower cost of living compared to Europe or North America.
“The school is allowing international students to stay in their dorms. Compared to students in other countries who were forced to move out and go back to Taiwan, I’m quite lucky,” she says.
Wei, who arrived in the city-state in July last year, has mixed feelings about the shift to online learning.
“It’s been convenient in terms of saving time, as getting from my dorm to my classroom takes 45 to 60 minutes,” she says. “But without in-person interaction with my teachers and classmates, I feel isolated, especially as some of my classmates have gone back to their home countries. During classes, technical problems — such as a bad Internet connection, or echoes when conducting a conversation — are quite disruptive.”
If COVID-19 doesn’t recede over the summer, students who’d planned to go abroad may regret they didn’t apply to local universities. As far as interviews and entrance tests for admission this fall are concerned, they’ve missed the boat.
Pandemic or not, Chen doesn’t see graduate study in Taiwan as an attractive option.
“I think the US can give me a better education and help me achieve my ultimate goal, which is to become a professor. In Taiwan, academia is super-competitive. It’s better for me to receive a foreign PhD,” he says.
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