Fulbright Features: Diverse perspectives highlight alumna’s studies in Taiwan

Elyse Mark
March 14, 2017

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This essay was written by a Penn State Fulbright winner who has embarked on her Fulbright trip.

Twelve Penn Staters earned Fulbright awards in 2016-17. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website

At this time last year, I was drowning in classwork and grappling with my honors thesis, experiencing that pre-graduation ennui familiar to so many Penn State seniors both yearning for and dreading the end of college. After graduation, I expected to move to Virginia, start work in the financial industry, and start corporatizing myself — an exciting but foreign prospect to me, a double liberal arts major in English and Chinese. In late April, I received an email that upended all of those plans, informing me that I had been selected as a finalist for a Fulbright degree program grant in Taiwan.

My grant funds two years of study in the International Master’s Program in International Studies at National Chengchi University (NCCU). Through the generosity of Fulbright Taiwan and NCCU, I am able to live in Taipei and earn a master of arts degree in international studies from one of Taiwan’s most prestigious universities. Unlike most Fulbright grantees, I have the chance to remain in country for two full years, which offers me the opportunity to immerse myself fully in Taiwanese culture and the local educational system. Originally, NCCU was established in 1920s Nanjing as the KMT’s central school of governance; in the 1950s, it reopened in Taiwan where it shaped diplomats and civil servants. NCCU maintains a reputation as a strong incubator for governance and political studies, making it a unique place for me to study international affairs. 

Over the last 60 years, Taiwan has successfully developed from a highly agrarian society to having one of the world’s strongest technology-intensive service economies. Rapid industrialization and urbanization policies following World War II transformed Taiwan’s political and economic landscape: a modern miracle of development that has allowed Taiwan, a recipient of significant foreign aid in the 1950s, to become an international aid donor today. This rapid economic growth and Taiwan’s complex history offer an excellent opportunity to study effective development strategy, and to contextualize it in a truly global political setting. At NCCU, I am focusing my studies on the intersection of development, international politics, and climate change research.

My degree program is international both in name and in student body, and my classmates come from all corners of the world. Their diversity means that class discussions, which often circles back to U.S. foreign policy, always broadens my perspectives on the global system and international impressions of the United States. Living and studying international relations in Taiwan has been challenging at times, particularly during the recent presidential election. I have definitely gotten accustomed to cab drivers assuring me that President Trump will be great for America, and classmates asking me what the controversial phone call between President Trump and Tsai Ing-wen really meant. Despite the current political tumult in the U.S., studying here in Taiwan continues to be extremely rewarding, and (maybe paradoxically) I have never felt more patriotic.

Over the last six months, one of my main goals has been striking a balance between academics and local engagement. Earlier in the fall, a few of my classmates and I held an interview workshop for a group of local Taiwanese students from the NCCU Department of Diplomacy who were preparing for the English-language interview stage of their applications to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In December, I also had the opportunity to be a discussant at my first academic conference in Taiwan, a joint effort by NCCU and Taiwan’s National Defense University.

Four students posed in library

In December, Mark attended the National Chengchi University/National Defense University Joint Conference.

IMAGE: Penn State

Beyond university, Taiwan is an extremely culturally rich place. As much as possible, I try to take advantage of Taipei’s mountainous setting by hiking with friends, and eating everything in sight at the city’s many night markets. This past October I had the chance to attend Asia’s largest gay pride parade, held in LGBT-friendly Taipei every year. Right now, the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan is processing a contentious marriage equality bill and as a result, same-sex marriage is one of the most divisive social topics in Taiwan today, especially for socially active young Taiwanese people.

3 people stand outside during the Taipei Gay Pride Parade

The Taipei Gay Pride Parade, held in October 2016, was the largest LGBT pride parade in Asia, spurred by the current debate over marriage equality in Taiwan.

IMAGE: Penn State

In reviewing the last six months, I realize my most memorable night in Taiwan has been the 2016 national celebration of Double Ten Day, a holiday commemorating the Wuchang rebellion of 1911 that facilitated the birth of the Republic of China. Along with a group of other researchers and Fulbright grantees, I had the opportunity to attend the 105th celebration of National Day and mingle with international diplomats and politicians from all over the world. Seeing so many peoples come together to celebrate Taiwan’s unique historical heritage, despite the challenges it faces in gaining national recognition from the global community, was a testament to the island’s distinctive culture.

Every day in Taiwan, I am learning. Whether studying a new political theory in class, learning a new Chinese character from a street sign, or discovering a new teashop near my campus, life in Taiwan has taught me to take a constant stream of new information in stride. While my path after graduation remains undecided, Fulbright has given me both the time and tools to develop myself academically and personally here, and it is with excitement that I look forward to the next year and a half I have in Taiwan.

Last Updated March 14, 2017