Q: Why did you study abroad in the US and Canada?
A: It’s college application season, and I’ve been receiving quite a few emails about studying abroad, college applications, and even immigration. Some of you who are already in education are even contemplating graduate schools and have inquired why I chose to pursue a doctorate in education in Canada.
To be perfectly honest, I think studying abroad involves a lot more than considering just school rankings and job opportunities. Of course, what to consider is highly dependent on your specific goals, finances, and other factors. I can’t possibly write a guide to meet everyone’s needs, but I can share with you my experience. Are you ready to read? Yeah, it’s time for another mini-novel.
I will begin with my master’s degree. Years earlier, I already had a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction. However, several years ago, I wanted to return to grad school to search for other work opportunities. I had already worked for more than decade in publishing, teaching, and training, and things were getting a bit stagnant. I hit a plateau in my career and was ready for a change.
我將從碩士學位開始講起。早些年，我已有了課程與教學（curriculum and instruction）的碩士學位。但就在數年前，我想回到研究所尋找其他工作機會。當時，我已在出版、教學與培訓方面累積了十多年的工作經驗，卻感到自己有些停滯不前。我想在職涯的平原期裡作出改變。
I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do: I wanted to teach in the US and possibly a change in lifestyle after so many years in Taiwan. So, I searched for a program that fit these overarching goals and found one at USC. The program was about 1.5+ years long, it was in an environment I was mostly familiar with, and I would have the opportunity to teach.
I applied for a teaching position through the program ahead of time and got it. Honestly, I applied for a teaching management role, but the position was already filled when I applied, so I was offered a part-time language teaching position instead.
I then planned my finances as there was little scholarship available for the program, and I was paying through my savings. At the time, I was already married, so this required discussion with my spouse. We sorted out our finances, took out our savings, and made sure I had enough for me to finish the program. My wife would still work as we have a mortgage and other expenses to pay off, and I thank her dearly for her support. She was also the one who encouraged me to return to school to seek new opportunities.
We estimated expenses to be roughly 3 million NTD for this 1.5 to 2 years, given that the tuition was about 1.8 million, and rent alone cost at least 45K NTD a month. To cover extra expenses both in the US and Taiwan, I would teach both onsite and online.
With this rough plan now looking more concrete, I set about finding a place to live. I searched online and found a studio apartment for about 1400 USD a month, about a 15-minute walk around campus. I did not want to drive because it would put an additional burden on a stringent budget. Luckily, the school had an Uber service for a one-mile radius, which covered trips to the grocery stores in the region. Ironically, they had this service because of the high crime rate in the area.
I packed up and moved into my apartment about 3 weeks before classes started. When I got there, my jaw dropped. The apartment was tiny, squalid, and in a building that was about a hundred years old. My windows had metal bars, and the entrance had an asbestos warning on it. The neighborhood was also rough; school security stood on the corner of every block every late afternoon til morning. Near my studio, there was a heavy smell of pot in every corner, and sirens from police vehicles and firetrucks were the most common sounds I heard, along with cacophony of fighting and screaming from my neighbors. I called the cops once because I heard a woman screaming nonstop and feared for her safety. About 3-4 cops showed up, and after that, the fighting stopped for a few months before resuming.
我在開學前三週就整理好行李，搬進了寓所。抵達後，我簡直不敢相信自己的眼睛。房間超小，環境惡劣，並且坐落在一棟有百年歷史的老舊建築裡。窗外裝著鐵條，入口處還張貼著石棉 (asbestos) 的警告標語。整個社區也是一團亂；每個街角都有學校的保安，從傍晚站到清晨。而寓所附近的每個角落，也都瀰漫著濃濃的大麻味。警車與消防車的警笛、鄰居吵架與打鬥的聲響，是我最常聽到的聲音。有一次，我聽見一名女子不斷地尖叫，便立刻報了警以免事態失控。當時，有三到四名員警趕來，我也因此清淨了一段時間。但就在數月之後，爭吵聲又捲土重來。
I don’t want to scare you as I personally was not a victim of any crime other than being “robbed” by USC of my savings. However, it is recommended that you stay vigilant of your surroundings and follow school safety guidelines. Needless to say, it took me about a week or two to get used to my new surroundings after the relatively routine lifestyle of going to work and returning home in Taiwan for the past 10+ years.
However, once I unpacked, scrubbed my filthy apartment spotless, and assembled some Ikea furniture, I started carrying out my plan immediately. I got my books, scheduled 5-6 hours for reading outside of class every day, and did every single one of my assignments to the best of my abilities. I would attend office hours not only to ask questions but to build a relationship with my professors. I highly recommend you do the same because they have so much to offer you if you just make the effort to connect. They helped me publish, network, provided references, and even brainstorm about business projects. Be sure to seize every opportunity to work with them and your peers.
I also worked at USC, and sought out student groups to join and lead. I met some students in our program clubs and tried starting a small business project with them using my existing experience in writing, teaching, and social media building. It failed in the end despite gaining some momentum, and let me tell you why it failed. You have to remember, for a small business to succeed, you have to have people play different roles well. Someone has to manage finances, someone has to do marketing, and some have to do the grunt work, which in my case was teaching. Many times, people have to play different roles due to limited budget.
我也在南加大工作，並加入學生團體，甚至成為團體裡的幹部。我在我們學程的團體遇到一些學生，並試著用我在寫作、教學以及建立社群媒體的經驗，與他們啟動一項小型的商業專案。雖然我們有一些動力，但最終仍以失敗收場。我想跟大家分享我們失敗的原因。請務必記得，若想打造一個成功的新創 (start up)，你須擁有能夠承擔不同工作的各式人才。有人要管理財務，有人要負責行銷，還有人要承擔基層的工作，也就是我在做的教學工作。但礙於有限的財務狀況，我們時常是一人身兼數職。
If you gather the same group of people all with the same sort of expertise, say teaching, who is going to do graphic design and marketing? No one, or you all end up learning everything yourselves, which is good, but then you may produce something that lacks professional polish.
Also, students all have different goals, and many would stop working on projects when there is no immediate financial return. You need to find people with the same long-term goals and beliefs. Some say about 50% of small businesses fail within 5 years, but I think that percentage does not even include projects and teams that do not make it to the business registration stage. Nevertheless, it was an invaluable learning experience, and I thank my teammates for their hard work. I think all students who are interested in entrepreneurship should work on business ideas. Even if it fails, the rewards and experience are immeasurable.
For entertainment, I would, of course, grab lunch or coffee with friends, and I made sure to set aside time for at least an hour of workout 2-3 times a week. The physical workout enables you to unwind from your studies, and you also tend to watch what you eat more when working out. Unfortunately, I think my working out actually led me to eat a bit too much, as I frequented the all-you-can-eat buffets a bit too often. Those $20 crab legs were worth it, though… I must have eaten through a few ecosystems worth of king crab legs. If I have any spare time, I would visit the art galleries and museum and visit family and friends. Every day was packed.
Another suggestion I have for you is to constantly change your environment and step out of your comfort zone. I’ve primarily been a textbook writer and teacher in my career, but through my translation and teaching services to policymakers, I started branching into other domains such as policymaking and geopolitics. This diversification opened up additional career opportunities due to networking and sharpening of existing skills. I seized every opportunity and even spoke at school groups outside my primary domain of teaching. I even appeared in my program’s commercial because I sought out every opportunity.
All in all, my 1.5 years in the master’s program were great. I achieved my larger goals of teaching in the U.S., starting a business project, publishing papers, meeting mentors who continue to help me to this day, and making lifelong friends. While the entire 1.5 years cost me around 3 million NTD, I leveraged what I learned to launch online courses and used the funds to pursue a doctorate and publish free learning materials, an experience that I will share with you in our next post.
I hope this story has been helpful to you. Trust me, it wasn’t easy to step out of my comfort zone and take such a significant gamble, and, as I’ve said, it’s not for everyone. Whether you should study abroad really depends on what you want to achieve and whether you are willing to take the risk. Whatever you do, talk it over with others, think and plan carefully because it is one decision that can change your life. However, for me, it paid off in the end, and I don’t regret a single second—or anything I did there—well, except maybe eating too many crab legs.
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