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Taiwan youths discover a world beyond studying

While the majority of Taiwan’s high school seniors burn the midnight oil preparing for crucial exams next month, a growing number of Taiwan’s young people are making the decision to take a different path. A recent issue of Taiwan’s Business Weekly profiles three students who have taken the road less traveled.

Experiencing a foreign culture

About four years ago, Chen Sheng-yuan, 20, dropped out of Hsinchu high school and flew to Helsinki, Finland. Carrying little more than a backpack, Chen took a train to Mäntsälä, a small town in southern Finland, and about 4,350 miles from Taiwan. There he enrolled as the first Asian student at the Mäntsälän Lukio, a type of academic high school unique to Finland.

Chen found the learning environment in Finland completely different to that of Taiwanese schools. With less than 20 students per class, there is closer interaction between students and teachers, according to Chen. There is no ranking among students, so students are not judged by their scores. They study only for themselves, not for grades.

“I learned from the Finnish education system that an excellent person is not measured by his outstanding scores, but by his thinking, ability and attitude,” said Chen. If he had not studied in Finland, Chen would not have known what he now wants to do. Studying hard would have been his sole goal in life.

In Taiwan’s education system, where the sole purpose of going to high school is to enter the best college, students rarely have a chance to take a breather from their books. In Finland, children have a lot of opportunities for self-discovery.

“Book study may lead to a good college, but it won’t make you the person you desire to be,” said Chen, who is now a freshman in the Turkish Language Department at National Chengchi University.

After a year in Finland, Chen returned to Hsinchu to continue studying Although he finished high school in four years rather than three, he is now more confident of his future. While others are working hard preparing for the college entrance exam, Chen spent eight months turning his overseas experiences into a book entitled Go! Take Lessons in Finland.

With a book under his belt, Chen was admitted to National Chengchi University. As for realizing his dream, Chen said, “You may not know what you can achieve in the beginning, but if you stay put without taking any action, it is certain you won’t achieve anything.”

Taiwan’s first expert on North Korean defectors

As a senior in the Department of Political Science at National Cheng Kung University, Yang Chien-hou has become Taiwan’s first expert on North Korean Defectors (NKD) seeking political asylum in South Korea. His initial interest came as a 17-year old high school student when he read about NKDs in a newspaper article. Even though North Korea is only three hours from Taiwan by plane, very little is known about this secretive communist country.

While his classmates were busy preparing for their college entrance exams, Yang was working hard to learn the Korean language and searching online for what little information there was about NKDs. At university Yang decided to concentrate on North and South Korea within his political science major.

It was not until his sophomore year at university that Yang was able to contact some NKDs. Initially he was introduced to a dozen NKDs thanks to a South Korean journalist at Radio Free North Korea. Eventually he amassed about 70 NKD contacts, although less than 10 percent consented to be interviewed. From his conversations with these NKDs, Yang has pieced together a picture of life for North Koreans under the dictatorship of former leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011). Yang plans to publish his interviews as a book or video to advance the understanding of North Korea’s authoritarian system.

After graduation, Yang plans to travel to South Korea to teach Chinese. He also hopes to work as an independent journalist gathering in-depth news about North and South Korea. As the first expert on NKDs in Taiwan, Yang firmly believes you have to stick with your own thinking, not drift along with the crowd. He stresses, “Don’t live a mediocre life,” a motto he hopes will take him along the path less-traveled.

Coming to grips with a sad childhood

While other classmates were worrying about homework and exams, Wu Sin-yi had different thoughts on her mind. Her focus was on finding her next meal and a place to rest her head. In desperation, she stole money from friends and teachers, and was labeled a “bad girl.” Since those dark days Wu has turned her life around, becoming a devoted young volunteer.

Wu was born into a family with drug and alcohol problems. Her parents divorced and both remarried. Then her mother died, leaving Wu an orphan. Coming from a poor broken home made her rebellious and distrustful of other people.

At the age of 12, she came across a sentence in a book – “Everyone is born special.” From that one phrase Wu saw her personality in a new light and was inspired to change. Without any support, she was faced with either sinking or swimming. She relocated to live with her grandparents and attended a range of schools. She decided to hide her past, and to put on a new face and be active in school.

Under the encouragement of a high school teacher, Wu began counseling sessions. At 16, she cried during a session, feeling a release from her sad past. This led her to confess the truth about her previous life, learning to trust her friends and gain an interest in helping others.

To start with, she acted as an assistant to the counselor, trying to help drug users and pregnant students. Wu drew on her own experiences to comfort those in pain. She took part in volunteer activities, helping to collect garbage, sell raffle tickets, and deliver meals to the elderly. She is currently studying in the Social Welfare Department at Hsuan Chuang University, and hopes to help more people as a professional social worker.