To Return or Not to Return? A Dilemma of a Taiwanese Scholarship Recipient

Written by Kalesekes Kaciljaan (Yu-Chi Huang).

Image credit: DSC_5615 by 木由子攝影/ Flickr: CC BY-ND 2.0.

In 2019, I was awarded a Taiwanese scholarship of government sponsorship for overseas study from the Ministry of Education of Taiwan to support my pursuit of doctoral study in public health at the University of Hawai’i. The reason I did so was that the financial status of neither myself nor my family could provide me with the funds for studying overseas. Unfortunately, many other Indigenous scholars from Taiwan, like myself, also went through the same path I did, owing to our people’s averagely lower financial status. 

I am grateful that I could have the scholarship to support my dream to study abroad and be a researcher devoted to Indigenous health. Unfortunately, however, certain scholarship regulations are outdated and greatly hinder the path of students whose research interests relate to Taiwan. As a result, we are forced to choose between our ideals and our promised benefits. Therefore, I would like to elaborate on my own experience to provide a deeper insight into the problems we recipients face when returning to Taiwan to conduct our research.

While studying at the University of Hawai’i, I learned that the community-oriented research approach is vital for Indigenous health study. Numerous studies worldwide demonstrate how health scientists work with Indigenous communities regarding their knowledge and values. They further developed culturally-oriented health interventions together with the communities. In Taiwan, however, this approach is constantly disregarded because mainstream scholars generalize Indigenous peoples into a “homogenous” group. As a result, differences between various groups and communities are invisible during the policy-making process.

The Motivation for Returning Home

I have participated in several community-based public health scenes in Hawai’i, and these experiences have prompted me to consider how I can contribute more effectively to my own community. For example, during my practicum in Hawaii, I learned how to work in a community as a public health practitioner by joining an organization devoted to serving the Hawaiian Kūpunas (Hawaiian older adults). 

Another experience was when I volunteered in the community service at KKV (Kōkua Kalihi Valley), which upgraded my knowledge of practising health science in the community. Applying scientific methods to the communities does not necessarily conflict with engaging in local issues; collaborations between researchers and communities help bond both parties and generate suitable health interventions. I assume that through partnership, our communities’ health resilience and autonomy would be further strengthened. However, there were limited discussions of said method in the Taiwanese public health society. 

The core value of my training as a researcher in community-based participatory research (CBPR) from my program is to immerse myself in the culture of the community where I am focusing on the care that residents and I want to determine and stay focused on the health issues from the area. However, CBPR is not a research method. It is an orientation, paradigm, or process that guides our research practices. It requires structure for participation, such as community advisory boards or equitable partnership teams with authority to make decisions. It also values the corresponding location of POWER at each stage of the research procedure. To shift the power imbalances and colonial paradigm of research, it is necessary to invest a great deal of time in engaging with the community, for example, by initiating dialogues between academia and communities. As with anthropology’s extensive and lengthy fieldwork, such an approach is more time-consuming than previous research methods. However, it allows researchers to connect more closely with the communities they examine.

I have always set my mission to bring my inspiration and experience in Hawaii back to Taiwan. My instructor and dissertation committee members also encouraged me to do my research in my community and work with the community members. I expect to become one of the pioneers devoted to developing Indigenous health in my homeland. I began my doctorate fieldwork in Taiwan this August. In this respect, I can finally fulfil my goal of creating a dialogue between my overseas learning and the status quo of my community, expanding the imagination for future practice on Indigenous health. 

The Dilemma of Being a Scholarship Recipient

My return to Taiwan, however, has made me fall into a dilemma because of the scholarship I received. By conducting fieldwork in Taiwan, I will violate a 90-day limitation of leaving the designated country of study listed in the scholarship regulations. As a result, my stipend will be cut by eighty per cent, even though my leave is indispensable to completing my diploma. This turmoil happens to every student receiving the same scholarship who does fieldwork outside the designated studying country. Back to my example, my research is to conceptualize the health perspective of Paiwan elders regarding well-being, healthy ageing, and service preference from the context of Paiwan Indigenous communities. My research has to be carried out in said communities to collect data and complete my thesis. This phase of my PhD study is the final and most critical step for me to obtain the degree and familiarize myself with working with the community. Yet, the Ministry of Education seems helpless at a time when I need the support the most by reducing the promised financial assistance.

This specific and outdated regulation has punished prospective young scholars who choose to return to contribute their efforts on issues crucial to Taiwan’s development. This is ironic, given that the purpose of establishing this scholarship is to encourage students to bring their experiences back to Taiwan. Furthermore, students may be discouraged from conducting Taiwan-related research if their funding is cut during fieldwork. 

Students in the social and applied science fields are more prone to fall victim to this rule than in formal or natural science fields because their work typically requires in-person investigations. At the same time, students who choose to study in Taiwan are more likely to return home and contribute to the progression of Taiwan. This condition reflects the ideology that our education policy still values science over humanities studies by providing unequal support to students. I wish for the Ministry of Education to adjust this outdated regulation and give the funding fairly to all fields of study.

My journey through my doctoral study at the University of Hawai’i has been a wonderful one, which presented me with different insights into Indigenous health. Yet, my progress will be crippled during the essential period of conducting fieldwork without sufficient support. Therefore, to complete my study and contribute more to my people’s health, I call for more support from the authorities to review the policies regarding government scholarships.

Kalesekes Kaciljaan (Yu-Chi Huang) is a PhD candidate at the Office of Public Health Studies, Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is from the Sapulju community of the Indigenous Paiwan People of Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Taiwanese scholarship of government sponsorship for overseas study.”

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