Taiwan’s Students Face Overseas Study Dilemma Amid Pandemic

Every year, tens of thousands of Taiwanese leave to pursue degree programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the pandemic is forcing them to make a tough choice this year: go ahead with their original plan, take courses online, or defer their studies altogether.

Whether to stay in Taiwan where the COVID-19 pandemic has been effectively quelled or take the risk and travel overseas to places where coronavirus infection and death counts are still worryingly high: this is the calculation many Taiwanese students originally scheduled to travel abroad for their undergrad or graduate studies were making this summer.

While the ongoing pandemic has had a well-reported negative impact on a number of Taiwan’s industries, the effects of the virus on Taiwanese students looking to complete their studies abroad have been less visible.

The decision to study overseas is one that an increasing number of Taiwanese young people had been making each year, whether it’s to gain some valuable experience in another country and eventually return home or to begin long-term careers abroad. According to data released by the Ministry of Education, over 41,000 Taiwanese applied for and received student visas for other countries in 2019, up from around 33,000 in 2009. More than 30% of those students pursued their studies in the U.S.

However, based on the experience and observations of two study-abroad organizations, OH! Study and USEAS, around half or more of these students have decided that going to the U.S. or elsewhere is simply not worth the risk this year. Jeffrey Yu, Overseas Study Manager for USEAS Taiwan, says that Taiwan has proven to be such a safe option that many of the company’s clients have opted to defer their studies until the coming spring semester or to fall 2021.

“I would say around 60-70% of the students who decided to defer chose to do so until the spring semester, with only a few deferring a full year,” says Yu. “While many of these students made the decision themselves, some universities are requiring that students defer only one semester.”

For Tu Cheng-yin, the choice to defer a full academic year was clear. Tu, a graduate of the electrical engineering department at National Taiwan University, had been accepted into the State University of New York at Buffalo’s master’s program in robotics. When the pandemic was peaking in New York state in April, however, he decided that going ahead with his original plan wasn’t worth it. Instead, he stayed behind in Taipei and launched a 5G-focused startup with some friends.

“What we are proposing is to offer free rapid 5G internet to international travelers and pay for it with other sources of income, such as advertising,” says Tu. “We’re thinking that if we can get it up and running this year, this idea can be carried out outside of Taiwan as well.” He adds: “If we go to the U.S., we could bring some of the work with us, and promote the company’s services to people planning to travel to Taiwan.”

Tu had the opportunity to take classes online but thought better of it when he realized the time difference would have him staying up until all hours of the night. Some universities have been more accommodating to students taking classes remotely in Europe and Asia, though. Hank Lee, a graduate student at Columbia University, says that most of his online classes start around dinnertime. He adds that he’s had a good experience with the format so far.

“My program originally incorporated online study, so my professors are pretty good at teaching in this format,” Lee says. “Also, we are mostly using Zoom for the classes, which is a convenient platform and has nice tools, like breakout rooms for smaller groups.” The only downside, he says, is that there aren’t many opportunities to get acquainted with his classmates outside of the lessons. Everyone just logs off right after the class is over.

Lee found out he had been accepted into Columbia’s Master of Arts in Statistics program while he was fulfilling his compulsory military service requirement in Taiwan this past spring. Like Tu, he saw the situation in New York worsen throughout March and April and ultimately decided to stay in Taiwan. However, he says he is optimistic that things will be better by the spring semester, with shops and services back open as normal.

“In the end, I decided to stay here and take online courses this semester because by the time I had made up my mind on whether to go, there were only four months left before the next semester,” Lee says. “It would have been very difficult to find an internship in those four months. Most require you do at least half a year and that you currently be enrolled in a degree program.”

Despite some of the setbacks commonly encountered with online learning tools – inconsistent internet speeds and audio/video quality, professors with limited digital literacy or experience teaching online, and others – taking remote classes this semester is an extremely popular choice among international students.

“Most of our international students will choose to study remotely from their home countries,” Sheri Ledbetter, a communications officer with University of California Irvine told TOPICS in an emailed statement. “There are some challenges to travel to the U.S. given limited operations at U.S. Consulates, and the requirement for a minimum of at least one in-person course for [visas for] new students.” However, Ledbetter surmises, since UCI was one of the first UC campuses to announce that it would offer all undergraduate courses remotely in the fall, the university did not see a large number of student deferrals this year.

While some students may be taking online courses this fall because they feel that otherwise they would be squandering a semester, Jeffrey Yu of USEAS says that there are also some tangible benefits to this approach.

“Some universities’ online classes are cheaper than their in-person ones, sometimes by as much as US$500 per credit,” Yu says. “In addition, some of these courses are considered ‘credit-bearing,’ meaning that they apply toward the degree and students that take them do not have to extend their graduation at all.” Those students would also still be eligible for optional practical training (OPT), which allows them to live and work or intern in the U.S. for a year after they graduate. Those in STEM fields can do so for up to three years, says Yu.

The third option

While staying behind in Taiwan for a semester or year might seem like a safer choice to most, both Tu and Lee note that a number of their classmates and friends have chosen to take the risk of starting their overseas study programs in person this fall.

One student TOPICS spoke to, who preferred to go only by his English name, Jack, was accepted into a master’s program in business management at a prestigious school in Paris. He says that he had already put off getting his master’s degree for almost two years while he finished an undergraduate double major and then completed his military service. He felt he couldn’t wait any longer and left for France in August with the blessing of his parents.

Jack had received information from the school about safety and prevention protocols on campus and was requested to provide a negative PCR test result for COVID-19 upon his arrival. However, when he showed up on campus the first day, his test result was either briefly glanced at or ignored altogether by the school’s administrators. He also noticed that virtually none of the virus prevention guidelines were being observed or enforced.

“Almost no one is wearing masks, people are having big parties, and students are using one access card to let other people into the dormitories” Jack says. “In the school canteen, everyone sits together and ignores the stickers they’ve put on chairs to encourage social distancing.”

Student behavior got so risky that the dean of students had to send out a campus-wide email, urging students to follow the school’s rules. Then, after some students tested positive for COVID-19 in September, all of Jack’s classes moved online for two weeks.

Jack says he’s also observed what could be considered discriminatory or racist behavior among some locals since arriving. “I always wear my mask when I’m out and about, but I’ve noticed that some local French will only put on their masks once they come near or pass by me or other Asians,” he says.

Despite wanting his education abroad to be a true cultural experience, Jack has instead mostly been sticking with other Asian students since arriving in Paris because they’re typically more observant of virus prevention measures than his European peers. He says he nevertheless wants to stay the course and finish his studies in France unless the situation gets much worse, and his parents have been supportive of his decision and dedication.

“I feel like yes, it’s dangerous, but as long as I don’t go to parties and keep wearing my mask – stay vigilant and take necessary precautions – I should be okay,” he says.