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TAIPEI, Taiwan: – When the first four Vincentians to be awarded scholarships under the Taiwan diplomatic program began their studies in Taiwan five years ago, they had no idea what to expect in a country that was for them just an exotic, though familiar, name.

In August 2004, Jeana Jack, Sallisha Browne and Casroy Cain arrived in Taiwan from St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) on five-year scholarships for undergraduate study. Vashti Carr, who had travelled to Taipei from the United States a few months earlier, was awarded a one-year scholarship for Chinese-language study. Carr later went on to earn a two-year scholarship from the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs for pursuit of a graduate degree.

Their recollections of those first few days and months range from “very, very difficult to describe” to “stressful,” but they all had one goal in mind – to further their education.

Five years later, three of them have graduated from degree programs, and the fourth, Cain, is one year away from completing his undergraduate degree in electronic engineering.

Another Vincentian, Noretta John, also graduated this year from a Taiwan university. She was studying on a scholarship granted in 2007 by the International Development and Cooperation Fund (ICDF), a government agency that funnels various types of assistance to Taiwan’s allies and other developing countries.

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The transition from a Caribbean island with a population of 110,000 to an Asian country that hosts 23 million people and a diversity of cultures was one of the first and major challenges the students had to deal with.

“You just lived from day to day and you don’t know how you are doing it and you just manage to get through,” said Jack, who graduated on June 13 from National Cheng Chi University (NCCU) with a first degree in public relations.

Despite the pressure of adjusting to a vastly different way of life, most of the students said, they see the Taiwan experience as a valuable one.

Although it has been “a tough five years,” Jack reflected, she had the opportunity to meet many people for future social and professional networking.

“And just the experience of living in a foreign country where the language is so different and the culture is so different, I think it was an invaluable life experience,” said Jack, a former information officer at the Agency for Public Information in Kingstown.

Sallisha Browne, a former LIAT employee in SVG, said her five years in Taiwan were “stressful,” and she cautioned other Vincentians who might want to come to Taiwan to study that “it is not what you expect”.

“It’s an eye opener; it is also hard, so come with the right frame of mind and attitude,” said Browne, who graduated from NCCU also on June 13 with a first degree in Business Administration.

For Carr, who had lived and studied in the U.S. for five years before coming to Taiwan, the transition was not as harsh. In addition, she had been exposed to certain aspects of Taiwan because her mother Peggy Carr had visited the country several times and had moved here in 2000, she explained.

Vashti Carr said that Taiwan was part of her life during her childhood and she recalled looking at the beautiful scenery in the Taiwan magazines that her mother would bring home.

Nonetheless, the younger Carr did not envision that she too would one day live in Taiwan.

“… when mom came I would tell her to bring something for me from Taiwan, but to me it was not a place that I thought I would end up,” said Carr, who graduated on June 6 from Ming Chuan University with a master’s degree in Applied English.

But even for a student like Carr who had already had the experience of studying in a foreign country, it took some effort to adjust to life at a Taiwan university.

She said she did not anticipate that her graduate degree, which qualifies her to teach English as a second language, would have been so consuming.

“I did not expect it to be so much work. I did not expect I would be so busy in school that it would be mostly all that I had time for,” said Carr, who has a first degree in Psychology from Abilene Christian University in the U.S.

Carr is still writing her thesis and says she does not have “that big sense of relief as yet,” but made it clear that she is making the most of the Taiwan experience.

“It is a great opportunity. You get to expand your horizons. You get to live in what for us is an exotic country. You get to learn what would be a very rare language in that part of the world (the Caribbean), and at the same time, you get an education,” she said.

For most of the students, the language issue has been a central factor in their daily lives. The students who held the diplomatic scholarships were all required to study Chinese for at least one year when they first arrived in Taiwan. John, however, said that this was not a requirement for her and as result she was more relaxed and not as exposed to some of the stresses of life in a foreign country.

“… I don’t know the language, so you don’t know much of what’s going on so you don’t have this sense of responsibility,” she said.

“You are not in tune with all of the pressure, the social issues, the economic issues; and the fact that I had a scholarship, you just get up go to school and everything was basically met,” she said days after her graduation on June 7 from National Central University (NCU) with a master’s degree in Environmental Sustainable Development.

Most Taiwanese speak enough English for her to communicate, said the former National Irrigation Authority employee, who holds a first degree in Agronomy from the University Pinar del Rio in Cuba.

But Chinese language proficiency is viewed as an asset by Jack, who had to take Chinese language classes as part of her degree program.

“[Chinese] is really, really valuable in terms of if you are thinking of being a global citizen and improving your language ability,” Jack said.

Carr, who chose to continue to study Chinese for two years after her Mandarin language study scholarship expired, holds a similar view.

She likes learning languages, she said, and she finds Chinese interesting because it is so different, but she thinks there are also other advantages.

“… it also seems to me like a necessity, although many people would tell you, you can survive in Taiwan without learning Chinese, but I think they miss out on a big part of Taiwanese culture.”

As the students prepared to move in different directions, they reflected on some of the lessons they will take with them and some of the sacrifices they made along the way.

John said that when she returns to SVG at the end of July, she plans to seek a position at the Ministry of Environment, and she hopes to evaluate the country’s stance on the environment, contribute to the development of an environment policy, and to educate Vincentians about sustainable development.

“I think one of the major challenges is the attitude of the [Vincentian] people because we don’t have that culture and that environmental awareness in our society,” she said.

Browne, on the other hand, said she’s not sure how her training will be put to use in SVG, but she may not have to face that question right away, as she intends to pursue a master’s degree in Taiwan.

Her five years in Taiwan has heightened her awareness of the fact that “there’s no place like home,” she said.

Jack, who is now married to another Vincentian student Jamali Jack, said she will stay on and teach English for a year while her husband works toward completing his undergraduate degree. However, her main interest is in foreign affairs and she plans to expand her knowledge in this area through distance learning, she said.

She lamented the fact that at NCCU, “administratively, there were many, many difficulties; many differences in terms of what we wanted and what they wanted to give.”

“…as international students … we were not part of the school per se. We never became entrenched in this community,” she said.

She revisited the loneliness that she experienced before her then fiancé arrived in Taiwan in 2006.

After he came to Taiwan however, “I was not as lonely, I had somebody important to me who I could share my experience with,” she said.

Both of them plan to return to SVG after he graduates and “contribute to Vincentian society in whatever way possible.”

“Probably, the most important experience that I’ll take away is learning how to interact with different cultures, especially cultures that are very different from ours,” she added.

Carr said she has not been back to SVG in nine years and that she misses many aspects of her life there.

“I try not to think about it too much. I miss my family. I miss our home. I miss the weather. I miss our [steel] band, [Vincy Spice].”

However, she has set her sights on a PhD and will remain in Taiwan for the time being, she said. Despite the many cultural differences among the countries of the world, people are fundamentally the same, she reasoned.

“For example my classmates, just like me, want to finish their degrees. They want to get a good job. Some of them hopefully want to do their PhDs, make a life for themselves.”

Peggy Carr contributed to this report.

This article was also published in the Searchlight newspaper in Kingstown, SVG on June 19th, 2009.