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Life in Taiwan as a New Colombo Plan Scholar

By Vishishta Ramanathan, Bachelor of Security Studies and Bachelor of Laws


As a wide-eyed 19-year-old on my first day at university, I eagerly explored every university stall to see what international work and study opportunities were on offer. Among them, I came across the New Colombo Plan (NCP) stand, where post-exchange students captivated me with their stories and ideas. It was there that I discovered a dream I harboured deep within me - the opportunity to work and study in Asia that served as a stepping stone towards my ideal career in foreign affairs - AKA the New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship.



For those who may not be familiar with the NCP, it is a signature initiative of the Australian Government offering undergraduate students the opportunity to live, study, immerse themselves in language learning, and engage in internships within the Indo-Pacific region. The NCP aims to foster stronger connections and mutual understanding between Australia and its neighbouring countries by facilitating educational and cultural exchanges for students in the region.


As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the world came to a standstill, and everything paused. Airplanes were grounded, cars idled, and dreams halted. I desired to expand my Asian literacy, but was confined to my home, attending virtual classes, and living a relatively isolated life. The 2020 NCP cohort faced the same circumstances and exchanged messages expressing sharing mutual uncertainty about the future and questioning whether this program would happen. At this time, I found solace in immersing myself in paperwork to pass the NCP selection process as a source of motivation during those uncertain times.




At this point, a lot of people were skeptical of my decision to live in Taiwan for one year, although I would explain that cross-strait relations were one of my main incentives to go. “Why Taiwan?” “You mean Thailand?” “Isn’t it tense over there?” “Why do you want to leave in the middle of a pandemic?”. To be honest, I had my own uncertainties and hesitations. I knew very little about Taiwan, and couldn't speak a word of Chinese. However, I followed my intuition to explore an underrated gem in the heart of Asia. And I can confidently say that my instincts were right – Taiwan is a highly underestimated place that exceeded my expectations…


After enduring a demanding 9-month application process, to my astonishment, I received the news that I had been accepted. The sheer joy, excitement, and relief that washed over me was breathtaking. I had secured a spot for this incredible journey!


This journey encompasses four distinct components:

1. Language training in traditional Chinese at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei

2. Exchange at the National Taiwan University

3. Internship at the Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce (ANZCham)

4. Internship at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP


Language Training

I must admit, the initial two months of my stay in Taiwan were far from smooth sailing, and making friends in a foreign country was challenging. I vividly remember boarding the wrong bus and ending up on the opposite side of Taipei, constantly struggling with tones when talking with locals, and feeling general anxiety to complete homework in Traditional Chinese. However, as the intensive training period progressed, I grasped the essence of Taiwan. From its liberal society and rich history to its critical infrastructure development and how convenient 7/11 stores are. Most importantly, I immersed myself in the intricacies of Taiwanese society, learning its Confucius values, compressed modernity and economic vigilance.


Exchange

Studying at NTU was an exhilarating experience that is hard to describe. The opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures was truly extraordinary. Meeting people on exchange automatically teaches you cross-cultural communication. You constantly adapt to high-low context style of speech, body language, respect diverse views and learning how people show respect from all around the world. Once you master this, the friendships you create are boundless, and you share unforgettable moments with friendships from around the world and sharing unforgettable moments together creates a unique chapter in your life. The classes I attended and the different approaches to learning challenged me to think outside the box and transform my educational journey. And that, is precisely what exchange is all about.


Internship at ANZCham

In early January 2023, I secured an internship opportunity at ANZCham. It exceeded all my expectations of overseas work experience and provided even more. From presenting innovative ideas to the Executive Director to networking with influential figures in the Australian, Kiwi, and Taiwanese business communities, I gained valuable vicinity to the intricate bureaucratic and Taiwanese business landscape, especially in an era of geopolitical attention. Moreover, I was fortunate to have an exceptional manager who gave great tutelage on working in a foreign professional environment and navigating the cultural competencies required to succeed in a dynamic and international workplace.




Internship at the DPP

For those passionate about political science, Taiwan offers a captivating environment to immerse oneself in. At the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), I was present among numerous international delegations, become a part of a constantly changing political landscape, observed how the ruling party reshaped their policies ahead of the 2024 national elections, and had the chance to recommend enhancements to their social media outreach to global audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed working in such a dynamic setting, especially post-local elections, which gave insights into the transformation of the Taiwanese identity, the need for economic policy adjustments, and local issues that prove more nuanced than depicted in international media.





Advice

1. Embrace the thrill of losing yourself. While traveling abroad, it is natural to seek comfort and familiarity upon arrival to find your bearings. However, the true essence lies in surrendering to the unknown. Embrace the present, venture into uncharted territory, and allow yourself to be captivated by the wonders that await. By embracing the unpredictable, you open yourself up to extraordinary experiences that can't be planned or mapped out in advance.

2. Enjoy solitude. When studying or working abroad, your expectations of forming a large friend group may not be a reality. In fact, you might find yourself with only a few friends who may not always be available for adventures - and that is ok. Travelling alone is an emotionally acute experience where you can introspect about yourself and your place in the world. You may discover that exploring places on your own heightens your connection to the surroundings, allowing you to appreciate more profoundly comparatively than with friends.

3. Prioritise mingling with locals when possible. While language barriers may exist, I discovered my most memorable experiences.


With a population of 24 million and home to 16 indigenous tribes, Taiwan has a rich and complex history. In recent years, it has garnered attention in the press due to its developments in cross-strait relations. However, my experience in Taiwan went beyond the numbers and headlines. I was captivated by the warmth of the people, witnessed breathtaking natural landscapes, utilized efficient public transportation, learned about the thriving economy in the Indo-Pacific region, and indulged in delectable street food that still lingers in my memory. Taiwan impressed me as a liberal, diverse, vibrant, and dynamic island.


I believe it deserves more recognition and awareness among Australians as it embodies the essence of what Asia has to offer. If you have a passion for travel or a curiosity about other cultures, participating in an exchange or working abroad can be a perfect fit for you. Consider exploring opportunities like the New Colombo Plan, which promotes international work and study experiences for students. Additionally, reaching out to the dedicated team at the Global Leadership Program can provide valuable insights into your next global opportunity.

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