Balancing Exploration, Education, and Passion in Taiwan
Part 1: From Rural Mexico to Seaside Hualien
A fourth-year undergraduate student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Rolando Ruiz recently sat down with the Office of International Affairs to share about his journey to Taiwan. “I come from a small town in Mexico, named Temoaya,” he said. “Temoaya is one of many rural towns in the central mountain range of Mexico, where it is normal to ride horses, go to the market to get fresh food, and find half of your family at Sunday mass. Many people who grow up in Temoaya, stay in Temoaya, as they have romanticized their rural lives.”
However, Rolando and his parents had different plans. “My mother, a kindergarten teacher, and my father, an accountant for an American enterprise, worked so that their children have a high awareness of the world beyond Temoaya,” he said. His parents were focused on cultivating his global perspective and encouraging him to know the world. When he was sixteen years old, he was encouraged to do an exchange abroad.
Rolando received the opportunity to come to Taiwan as a high school exchange student through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. “I studied for one year at the National Hualien Vocational High School of Agriculture,” he said, “which helped me understand Taiwanese culture, make friends that adopted me as their family member, and become someone who could not only speak four languages, but also connect with people from four nationalities.” Growing up speaking Spanish, Rolando started learning English at age five, French at age fifteen, and Chinese during his exchange at age sixteen.
With a natural aptitude for languages, Rolando learned Chinese quite fast. “I arrived in Taiwan in August and by December… I was able to speak and communicate,” he said. “I was able to talk with my host parents in Hualien. I was able to talk with my friends and discourse about basic stuff.” One thing that helped him pick up the language was participating in the high school’s football team. “In the football team there were many indigenous people,” he said. “Together with them, it was so easy to learn Chinese, because they’re way more open. They love jokes. I love jokes. So that was our language, making jokes of each other, mostly them making fun of me. But that was also a way to push me to learn faster.”
Immersing yourself in activities that require a foreign language is a great way to learn fast by necessity. Through the friendships Rolando built, he was able to master basic Chinese in just a few months. Although Rolando returned to Mexico to finish high school, his exchange in Hualien was only the start of a growing relationship with Taiwan.
Part 2: Learning Mandarin Chinese
Upon his return to Mexico, Rolando completed his final two years of high school at the affiliated high school of Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), graduating in 2017. On top of his high school studies, Rolando had also been taking outside Chinese language courses, determined to improve his language skills. Right before graduating from High School and when the University applications started, he applied to the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship as a backup plan, to study Chinese for 3 months at the National Taipei University of Education (NTUE), in Taiwan. This scholarship supports students to study Chinese at any language level in Taiwan approved by the Ministry of Education.
When the scholarship was awarded to Rolando, he did not think twice and suggested to his parents that he would go back to Taiwan for one year, work on his language skills, and then return to Mexico for university. “My mom said, as a parent, we always want our sons to get wings and fly,” Rolando recalled. “But we never thought that you could actually fly away. Then she told me, okay, you go for a year and when you come back to Mexico, you study university here.” Hoping for his return to Mexico for university, his family let him fly away.
Safely back in Taiwan, Rolando began his Chinese studies at National Taipei University of Education (國立台北教育大學). But his thirst for linguistic knowledge wasn’t satisfied there. “The system wasn’t what I expected; we were many people, and we were learning, but I felt that it was a very slow pace,” he said. “I wanted to run instead of walking and taking a good pace with Chinese.” To find a more suitable pace, Rolando transferred to National Taiwan University’s Chinese Learning Division (Language Center).
The book that Rolando finished at NTUE was level 2, and in NTU he passed the exam to start halfway through level 4. When he began his language classes at NTU, he could barely keep up with the pace they set.
“My classmates were three Japanese girls , a girl who grew up in Australia, but her parents are Chinese descendants, and a Mexican guy who wanted to become a lawyer in China. ” he told us. “So, their Chinese was a beast and mine was a little baby. I was like, what did I just get into?! But I told myself, you don’t give up Rolando. You can do it, you can do it. And I started to study.” Through hard work and perseverance, Rolando improved his Chinese skills enough to consider applying to university in Taiwan.
Before choosing which schools to apply to, Rolando did some digging. “At that time, I wanted to be either an economist or a chemical engineer,” he said. “I started to do my research and I saw that the engineering college at NTU was very good, and NTU’s ranking was very high.” Rolando also asked his classmates for advice. He had developed a close bond with the other Mexican student in his Chinese class, who he “saw like a big brother.” Rolando asked him, “Hey, what do you think? What should I do? He told me, don’t ever hesitate. Choose the university that is the best one.”
As Taiwan’s largest and most comprehensive university, National Taiwan University consistently ranks not only as the top university in Taiwan, but one of the top worldwide. Feeling sure about his decision, Rolando applied solely to NTU in January 2018. He was accepted to the Department of Chemical Engineering, and received the Ministry of Education’s Taiwan Scholarship, which covers university tuition and provides a monthly stipend to international students in Taiwan.
Part 3: Studying at National Taiwan University
Then he had to break the news to his family. “I told my parents I’m going back to Mexico this summer, but then I’m coming back to Taiwan in September,” he said. But they still wanted him to study in Mexico. However, the Taiwan Scholarship turned the tide. “When I did the math for how much money they would save on my studies, that’s when they said, okay, stay in Taiwan, because it was a huge difference just because I got the scholarship.” There are many different scholarships for international students in Taiwan, from both government and university sources. For more information, you can visit the Office of International Affairs webpage about scholarships.
After a summer in Mexico, Rolando returned to NTU in the fall of 2018 to begin his university studies. Adjusting to being a full-time degree student at NTU took some time, as the study cultures between Taiwan and Mexico differ. “I remember before my first spring break I was so happy,” he said. “Then my professors told me after the spring break we’re gonna have midterms. It cannot be before?! Let the kids have vacation! I was asking all my Taiwanese friends, what are you going to do for the vacation? They all said, I’m going to study, I’m going to study… And then I was like, I think I’m gonna study too.”
Students at NTU often immerse themselves in their studies, but for Rolando, living as a foreigner in Taiwan requires a degree of independence that local students may not experience. Reflecting on these challenges, Rolando said, “the Taiwanese classmates that we have, we see their study habits and test scores and think it means like they’re geniuses. But also, I think it’s because as foreigners we come here, and we are becoming adults in a faster way. Because we were not living with our parents. We are cooking by ourselves; we are living by ourselves. So it also pushes you to go out and live a little bit earlier.” Living apart from your family and in a foreign country brings challenges beyond the classroom. But it also brings unique experiences, as you can explore a new country and culture.
Rolando applied to the Department of Chemical Engineering because of his “deep interest to understand how we can learn to live in balance with nature,” he said. “Chemistry is everywhere our eyes turn and engineering can be applied to almost any science.” Now, in his final year, not only has he learned much from his classroom lectures, but he also has more than 500 hours of experience in the lab using different types of software and machines . Even with all that time in the lab, Rolando still had time for extracurriculars and personal exploration.
Part 4: Making Science Edible
In January 2021, Rolando started his own science journalism podcast, one of the first in Taiwan, called “Pulche.” When we asked him about the name, he said “Pul stands for pulque in Spanish. That is an Aztec drink from many, many years ago, and it’s said that it was like the beer of the Aztecs, or also known in the culture as the beverage of the Gods. Then it’s che for chemistry. It has something from my hometown, and something from Taiwan because I’m studying chemical engineering.” The podcast name represents Rolando’s history growing up in Temoaya and moving to Taiwan.
His motivations for this podcast are to make science accessible to all audiences. He calls this “making science edible.” Where do these motivations come from? “It goes back to my university classes,” he said, “I felt that my classes were so hard, and that the professor didn’t make it edible. They just teach their content and tell you to go review it at home. If you don’t understand, ask your classmates. But I want to make science edible for everyone.” Rolando wants to make current research understandable and accessible to the average person.
To get his podcast started, he requested interviews with professors in his department. Through his interview style, he breaks down their research and helps them to communicate it effectively. Additionally, “I ended up talking about many other topics with the professors and so it came out pretty cool,” he said. His podcasts go beyond just research content, discussing university experiences and academia more broadly.
Over time, he extended his interviews to graduate students and professors outside his department, even outside the sciences. “At the beginning, it was making science edible, and I wanted to go towards research,” he said, “but one person told me everything has a science.” Taking this to heart, his podcast topics grew in diversity. “Now I have many episodes about art,” he said, “they talk about art and how do you do that and how does art interact with your brain.”
“Pulche” continues to spread accessible knowledge to a general audience. Rolando does not limit this to any field or specialty anymore; “the more people are talking about what they know, the more this knowledge spreads, the happier I’m going to be,” he said. You can check out Rolando’s podcast on Spotify and Apple Music under “Pulche Podcast.”
Part 5: Balance in All Things
For Rolando, falling in love with Taiwan was not a moment but a process. Although he was struck by the island’s beauty at first, he compared this to a relationship with a person. “First, you see all the good things,” he said, “but the more time you are with that person, the more you find out things that you don’t like.” During his first exchange to Taiwan, it was the people that intrigued him the most. When he came back and lived in Taipei, the convenience of Taiwan captivated him. “I bought a motorcycle,” he said, “I felt that it was like a huge booster for me because I could go anywhere.” Taiwan is a small island, packed with populous cities, rural mountains, and sandy beaches. With a vehicle, almost any kind of landscape can be accessed in a few hours or less.
Gradually, Rolando grew to like Taiwan more and more, taking the positives together with the negatives. “I think it’s really like a process of learning to like both sides of the coin,” he said. Rolando hopes that new students in Taiwan can learn from his experience; give yourself time to adjust, take the good with the bad, and give your relationship with this country time to grow.
Maintaining a balance between studies, self-care, and exploration is important while adjusting to life away from home. For Rolando, being away from family meant he had to figure out more problems on his own. “My way to solve things is to go hiking, or to go on my motorcycle to a river and just sit there, or at the sea. Some activities that make me forget a little bit of school.” Taking the time to disconnect from school and destress, like Rolando, is a good way to care for your mental health. In a new country, this sometimes requires new strategies.
Rolando’s final words of wisdom to international students is to travel as much as you can. Take advantage of your time in Taiwan and enjoy this beautiful country. “I think as foreigners, even though we need to get our things done inside of university,” he said, “we also need to get things done outside of it. We need to travel a lot and keep on discovering this island.” There are many things to discover both on and off campus at NTU, so come explore!
This summer, Rolando is participating in the inaugural NTU International Mentorship Program, a mentorship-style internship program tailor made for international students at NTU. Amongst many applicants, Rolando was selected to intern at Northland Power, a power producer dedicated to developing, building, owning, and operating clean and green global power infrastructure assets around the world. He will be working closely with his mentor from the company, Government Relations Manager Clara Huang. For more information about the International Mentorship program, please visit the website.