Applying to Tzu Chi turned out to be the best decision I made in my life. People were baffled at my decision to pursue an English-related degree in a country that has a relatively poor command of the English language. However, for once in my life, I resolved to see something through from the beginning to the end. Besides, the lecturers in Tzu Chi are mostly from the UK or the US, hailing from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Lancaster, so I was confident I had made the right decision.
While most English departments in Taiwanese universities focus more on teaching English as a second language (TESOL), our department follows a different route; emphasis is not only placed on applied English, but on literature as well, with a ratio of 40:60. Apart from the subjects laid out by the department, students are required to fulfill 16 credits worth of general courses from 5 different categories: humanities, social, science, arts, and language.
This way, students have the opportunity to study subjects not available to their own respective majors. I myself have taken up medical/nutrition related classes, as well as a flower arrangement and movie critique class, to name a few. I am currently halfway into my sophomore year, and I have achieved much beyond my wildest dreams.
I have been a recipient of the International Student Scholarship for two years in a row, and I have received the Dean’s Prize for outstanding academic performance for three consecutive semesters. Besides that, I am the Vice President of Tzu Chi University’s International Student Club and the President of the student committee in my department.
I have also organised various projects such as drama performances, and am setting up the first ever LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) Student Support Group in eastern Taiwan. I was even one of four students selected to represent Taiwan in the Xiamen-Taiwan Interpretation Competition, but I eventually dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.
What I am trying to share here is that you should expand your horizons and think outside the box. Sometimes, chasing something blindly will only cost you all the precious time you could have used to pursue your real path. I was willing to do something different, and I discovered that Literature is something that I am comfortable with. My scholarship enables me to study here, literally for free, with my own allowances and the freedom to actively participate in a lot of voluntary social work.
Since Tzu Chi Organisation is one of the largest International Relief Organisation in the world, it is no surprise that we students are required to complete at least 6 hours worth of voluntary work. Personally, I find doing charity and volunteering more fun and meaningful than participating in clubs and societies.
For the past two years, I have taken part in charity sales, asked for donation in the streets of Hualien to raise relief funds for the May 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, volunteered in Tzu Chi Hospital, and assisted on a weekly programme in guiding aboriginal children. Those, along with monthly visits to the recycling centre to help sort out recyclable rubbish and volunteering weekly in the Jing-Si Books & Café, took up most of my free time.
Pursuing an ELL degree has put me under constant scrutiny from, well, everyone! I have lost count of the many objections, and refuse to take heed anymore. With everyone else scurrying to pursue a medical degree or engineering degree, I chose Literature because it is my field of interest and I saw the degree’s potential. Of course, I will have to spend a few more years pursuing my master’s degree and PhD, because I have always wanted to teach.
In the land of language, there are many career paths to choose from. You could work in a publishing company, be a translator, an interpreter, a radio presenter or television anchor, or even a writer. As for me, I am content with my dream of becoming a professor of literature.
Everything is so different from when I was struggling during my SPM days. Quoting from an episode of the TV show One Tree Hill:
You can blame your circumstances of fate, bad luck, or bad choices, or you can fight back.
Thus, I believe everyone can bounce back from misery and failure the way I did. Do some soul searching, recognise your strengths, and remember that faring poorly in high school does not mean you are not going to have a bright future; you just have yet to find your true calling.
Tan Yew Chern is an English Language & Literature major in Tzu Chi University of Hualien County, Taiwan who dreams of becoming a professor of Western Literature. He considers himself a high school reject but is now happy pursuing his interest in Literature.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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