An Innovative Global Curriculum：Minerva Schools Comes to Taiwan
Tina Xie /photo by Kent Chuang /tr. by Brandon Yen
National Taiwan University organized guided tours and workshops to introduce the Minerva students to Taiwanese culture. (courtesy of the Office of International Affairs, NTU)
The Minerva Schools program at California’s Keck Graduate Institute prides itself on being a university of the world. Not confined to any physical campus, Minerva students visit seven cities across the world during their four-year degree programs. They interact with their teachers through webinars that explore specific topics and prioritize mutually engaged discussions. Minerva aims to cultivate not only specialist knowledge but also transferrable critical thinking skills. The year 2020 marks their students’ first visit to Taiwan: Taipei is the culmination of their global experience.
Minerva’s collaborator National Taiwan University organized a variety of co-curricular workshops for the visiting students. Guided by academics from various disciplines, the students were able to delve into Taiwan’s diverse cultures through field trips, practical sessions, and seminars, where they interacted with NTU students.
Toad Mountain community resident Mrs. Ye taught Minerva students to make caozaiguo, a Hakka dainty made of glutinous rice and herbs such as Chinese mugwort, with sweet or savory fillings. (courtesy of the Office of International Affairs, NTU)
Food, memory, culture
In the Toad Mountain community near the Gongguan area of Taipei City, a house was bustling with activity. In the kitchen, “Ah-Mei” was cutting vegetables. Around her stood a group of youngsters who kept asking her questions about what she was cooking.
This was one of the workshops arranged by NTU for the Minerva students. Entitled “Edible Care and Placemaking,” it was jointly run by NTU academics Huang Shu-mei (Graduate Institute of Building and Planning) and Chen Yi-yi (Department of Social Work). Inviting residents of the Toad Mountain community to serve as cooking instructors, Chen and Huang wanted their students to explore the connections between food and the people who prepare it and then to contemplate what elder care means.
“Ah-Mei, why do you eat such spicy food?” “Where did you learn to cook this dish?” “May I ask where you bought this knife? It cuts so well!” Sniffing out Ah-Mei’s homesickness in her “glass noodles with beansprouts,” the Minerva students invited Ah-Mei to tell the story of her migration from China’s Sichuan. They went on to share with each other their own culinary interests and the reasons behind them. “When it was your turn to stand in front of the chopping board, you had to answer questions,” Chen reminisces about the lively and earnest interactions that day.
“They are extremely perceptive!” Chen and Huang agree that these students are highly sensitive to latent meanings and rather tolerant of cultural differences. “Although it was hot and stuffy inside and the space was a little confined, nobody grumbled or showed any displeasure. At first we were worried about Western students not being used to spicy cuisine, but they finished off every morsel, even though it made their eyes water.”
NTU organized a workshop called “Taiwanese Tea: From Land to Cup,” bringing the Minerva students to Pingling in New Taipei City to study the local tea industry. (courtesy of the Office of International Affairs, NTU)
NTU’s executive vice president Chou Chiapei has facilitated many international collaborative projects. She has been actively promoting the university’s collaboration with Minerva.
Learning through culture shock
Minerva’s admissions process emphasizes ideas and experiences, rather than exam results. Accordingly their students come from diverse backgrounds and learn about different cultures from each other. In addition, studying in various cities across the world exposes them to changes in environment and unpredictable culture shocks, further enhancing their respect for cultural differences.
“We encountered social turmoil in each of the cities we studied in,” Taiwanese-born Eric Lin recalls. In 2016 they went to New York, where the result of the US presidential election sparked widespread unrest. In 2017, when they were based in Seoul, North Korea launched a series of missile and nuclear tests, causing international concern. In Hyderabad in 2018, they were not able to use the city’s ATMs because of a cash crunch in India. When they were in Berlin in 2019, the influx of Syrian refugees was creating tensions in German society. Their arrival in Taiwan this year coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, and many of them had no choice but to leave the country early, in mid-March.
Because of this special experience, and because Taipei was their last stop, the Minerva students decided to invite President Tsai Ing-wen to give an online speech at their graduation ceremony, in which she shared the lessons of Taiwan’s successful response to the pandemic and extended good wishes to the graduates. “We didn’t think President Tsai would accept our invitation. We were surprised when we heard from her after about two months!” Eric Lin, one of those who came up with this idea, says that he and his fellow students managed to accomplish everything on their own, from composing the invitation to organizing the online meeting. This was a challenge they set themselves.
Taiwan Panorama interviewed Minerva’s founder, Ben Nelson (top), and its managing director for Asia, Kenn Ross (bottom).
Impressions of Taipei: Unity and democracy
During their two months in Taipei, most Minerva students made a habit of studying in the NTU Library. There they not only prepared for their webinars but also worked round the clock to complete their “capstone projects.” Designed by the students themselves, and reflecting their interests and talents, these projects could take many different forms, such as dissertations, inventions, and career plans. Minerva gives students two years to bring their projects to fruition.
Liberty Pim, a British arts and humanities major, has created “The Price of Progress,” a podcast series on Spotify which explores the pernicious impact of our relentless pursuit of progress. Tatiana Soskina, a Russian student whose studies also focused on “humanities applications,” has chosen to analyze blogs. Both of them decided to remain in Taiwan after the outbreak of the pandemic. They believed that Taiwan was the safest country at that time, in addition to being a good place to live.
Apart from Taiwan’s anti-Covid endeavors, Pim admires the social cohesion the country has demonstrated in the face of the pandemic. “Taiwanese culture is a bit different from British culture. Here people are willing to make some sacrifices for the wellbeing of others. Even if these adjustments can be inconvenient, they help keep everyone safe.”
The Minerva students were impressed by the Taiwanese people’s active participation in the presidential election of 2020. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Tatiana Soskina likes Taiwanese food, but at first she found it difficult to adapt to the culture of sharing dishes.
A university partnership
To achieve the purpose of “global immersion,” Minerva selects cities that enjoy well-established infrastructure, dependable Internet connection, political stability, economic prosperity, and social diversity. Besides meeting these criteria, Taipei is one of the most important cities in the Chinese-speaking world. It is a worthy choice for the endpoint of Minerva’s grand tour.
Ben Nelson, Minerva’s founder and current CEO, invites his students to think about what constitutes Chinese culture during their time in Taiwan. Chinese is spoken both in Taiwan and in China, but the two countries have very different political systems and interact with the wider world differently. Another question worth pondering is this: both Taiwan and the US are known for “diversity,” but does diversity mean the same thing in Taiwan as in America?
Nelson came to Taiwan in February this year to visit a handful of local universities. He has noticed many communities devoted to education and commerce in Taipei, where society is characterized by a liberal and open mindset. Some Taiwanese universities with a reformist agenda have also expressed a wish to collaborate with Minerva.
NTU, Minerva’s partner this year, was at first only responsible for assisting the students with their visa applications, but executive vice president Chou Chiapei wanted to offer more than just administrative support. After a meeting with Minerva’s Taipei representative, NTU’s Office of International Affairs set about organizing immersive activities to help the students experience Taiwanese culture.
Chou, who is dedicated to promoting NTU’s international involvement, looks forward to further collaborating with Minerva in the future and gaining more insights from Minerva’s pedagogical emphasis on critical thinking. She encourages her students to get to know their Minerva peers at the co-curricular workshops and to observe how they ask and respond to questions. By interacting with people from various cultural and educational backgrounds, her students will attain a deeper understanding of cultural diversity. Ben Nelson’s vision for Minerva strikes a sympathetic chord with Chou: the aim of real education is to cultivate capabilities and thinking skills that will always stand one in good stead.
Eric Lin has relished the freedom of studying wherever he pleased in each of Minerva’s global cities, unconfined to any physical campus.
Liberty Pim learned from the workshop “Edible Care and Placemaking” that food can embody love. She was reminded of her mother’s cooking.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama