Many U.S. university students spend the summer break honing their skills by serving with American companies or institutions in Taiwan.
Every summer, multinational corporations, non-profit organizations, and government bodies in Taiwan invite university students from abroad to intern in their Taiwan offices. These interns are tasked with a variety of responsibilities ranging from as menial as shredding old documents to as vital as participating in consular and diplomatic affairs. In exchange for a nominal stipend intended to cover their costs, interns receive invaluable professional experience and on-the-job training while living in an exotic, foreign country.
This summer Taiwan Business TOPICS sought out a number of interns from U.S. universities – both American citizens and those of other nationalities studying in the United States – to learn about the challenges they faced and how they felt about their experiences on the island. Among them were three interns at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei: Richard Haddock, an incoming graduate student at George Washington University; Meghan Iacobacci, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; and Cole DeVoy, an undergraduate at Cornell University. TOPICS also spoke with Nga Nguy, a Vietnamese national studying at Harvard University who was interning with Abbott Vascular; Vincent Huang, an undergrad at Yale University who was assisting at Microsoft Taiwan; and David Ching-chuan Wang, a graduate student studying economics at Duke University, who spent the summer at Citi Taiwan working as a management associate (MA) intern.
Through these internships, the students acquired the important experience of living and working in a foreign country and, for some, a different culture. The students discovered how to overcome unforeseen obstacles with creative solutions, as well as how to adapt to a work environment on the other side of the globe from their college campuses.
Asked why they decided to come to Taiwan, most of the interns mentioned previous academic interest or work experience in mainland China or East Asia at large. Working in Taiwan offered a valuable complementary experience, while providing a different perspective than can be found in China or Hong Kong.
After arrival, many of the interns found that adjusting to life in Taiwan was easier than in China or Hong Kong, citing the incredibly efficient and inexpensive public transportation system, wonderful cuisine, modern amenities, and friendly and open population. The readiness of Taiwanese to welcome foreigners allowed students who were living abroad for the first time to feel comfortable, and provided an agreeable contrast for those who had spent the majority of their Asia study and work time in China, where attitudes towards foreigners can be less hospitable.
Meghan Iacobacci, who had previously lived in China as a Peace Corps volunteer, wanted to see what life in the Mandarin-speaking world outside the mainland was like, and was fascinated by the different perspective she found in Taiwan. “I wanted to see the other side of the story,” she says.
Although Taiwan is an accommodating place for foreigners, all of the interns interviewed emphasized the importance of learning about Taiwanese culture and attaining some degree of Chinese language proficiency before arriving. Though not explicitly necessary for their internships, the ability to speak Chinese opens a lot of doors for international visitors. Learning the language, says AIT intern Richard Haddock, enables you to “make huge strides in building connections because then [Taiwanese people] see that you are trying to connect and they reciprocate.” If they had been taught simplified characters at school, students will need to look up the traditional character version of important words, as the difference between the two writing systems is one of the most commonly stated frustrations among American students on the island.
Further, since Taiwanese politics can be complicated, understanding the basic ins and outs of how the country operates politically provides helpful insights for handling both work and everyday life.
Working as an intern
As in many parts of the world, organizations that operate in Taiwan frequently rely on interns to do important work in assisting their co-workers and contributing to the organization’s success.
At AIT, summer interns play an especially significant role. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Taiwan, AIT takes the place of an American embassy in promoting U.S. commercial interests, facilitating travel between the two countries, and otherwise representing the United States in interaction with the Taiwan authorities. It is staffed by regular U.S. foreign service and commercial officers.
Each summer, many staff members depart for new destinations and new personnel arrive to take their places in what Public Diplomacy Section Chief Joseph Bookbinder describes as the “summer transfer season.” During that transition, interns play a key role in helping to fill the gap so that operations can continue to be performed smoothly. Because of that vital role, Bookbinder works with his team to select the six to eight most qualified applicants from a pool of some 40 prospects.
The three AIT interns interviewed for this article served in three different but equally important capacities at the Institute. Richard Haddock worked on a variety of projects for young people, including the Education USA and international summer camp programs. Education USA promotes the United States as a study-abroad destination, and the international summer camps bring Taiwanese youth together with youngsters from other Asian countries to discuss potential solutions to regional and global problems like climate change and gender issues.
Meghan Iacobacci served part of the time in an administrative capacity in the Taipei main office, and the rest in a broader role at AIT’s Kaohsiung branch, working on everything from public diplomacy to consular services. Cole DeVoy assisted consular officers in Taipei in processing visa applications and performing other consular services.
The business sector also provides numerous opportunities for student interns to gain international work experience to bolster credentials for future employment or perhaps to get a taste of possible future careers. Within business, technology and finance are two fields that often attract interest because of Taiwan’s success in developing itself into a major regional or global player.
David Wang describes his internship with Citi as an invaluable experience due to his interest in a future career in banking. A successful internship can even lead to future full-time employment, notes Jessica Chan, Wang’s supervisor at Citi. “We want to leverage this kind of internship program,” she says. “Through this real work experience, we can understand if this person is really capable of becoming a successful MA [management associate] at Citi.”
At Microsoft Taiwan, Vincent Huang says he benefited immensely from the summer internship. He especially cites the experience he received helping to man the Microsoft booth at Taipei’s Computex, the largest IT trade show in Asia.
Life in Taiwan
While summer internships offer great opportunities for U.S. students, they do entail some challenges, including finding housing in a foreign country. According to the summer interns, employers are often able to help. Foreign service officers at AIT provided homestays for Richard Haddock and Meghan Iacobacci, and Abbott Vascular made housing available for Nga Nguy for the duration of her stay.
Other interns took advantage of online resources to arrange living accommodations before arriving in country. Cole DeVoy utilized the English-language Tealit, a Craigslist-like website that lists apartments for rent in Taipei. “I appreciated it mostly because it was in English,” says DeVoy. “Because this was my first foray out by myself, I thought maybe I should take that weight off of my shoulders and [book housing] in English.” Among the other rental sites is Airbnb, which offers a wide range of choices in Taipei and around Taiwan. While stationed in Kaohsiung, Meghan Iacobacci rented an apartment through Airbnb and expresses her satisfaction with the process.
Aside from such challenges, each intern interviewed for this article expressed profound appreciation for the comfort and convenience of living in Taipei. Vincent Huang, for instance, observes that “Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, has on display an incredible and rather unique combination of natural beauty, ethnic and regional culture, work-oriented professionalism, and urban entertainment.”
Many of the interviewees suggested that while in Taiwan, interns should grasp every opportunity to explore the island. “There is no better way to really understand the people and to live life through their lenses than to just go out there and explore and connect with people,” says Richard Haddock. “That really grounds me here.”
He adds that students who take advantage of everything Taiwan has to offer find that they develop a real attachment to the island. “My only advice would be: if you have the opportunity, work in Taiwan for a summer, for a year, or for however long as you want.
“Taipei is an amazing city,” adds Cole DeVoy. “I could easily spend years and years and years here.”