Last Valentine’s Day, Virginia Commonwealth University student Naomi Ghahrai boarded a plane to study in Taiwan. It was out of his comfort zone.

“I knew I wanted to conduct research abroad and take global health courses,” Ghahrai said. “As I have never visited Taiwan before, I was interested in exploring another country. I heard so many good things about Taiwan from my friends. They were talking about how it is so convenient, that there is delicious food, that it is not expensive, that there are beautiful landscapes and that there are nice people. I knew that I just had to study abroad there- down.

Ghahrai is completing a research internship in chemistry and taking a course in Chinese language and health policy while teaching English to elementary school students in rural Taiwan. The internship, which runs through June 28, is offered through the Consortium for Study Abroad in Taiwan, a pilot program launched by Fulbright Taiwan that aims to encourage American students to study abroad in Taiwan. Ghahrai graduated from VCU as an Honors College Fellow in May with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the College of Humanities.

“As I’m half Japanese, I can speak Japanese, but I can’t read or write Japanese kanji, which consist of Chinese characters. So I was really interested in learning Chinese characters,” he said. she declared.

At first, she wanted to study in Japan because she had family there, but most Japanese study abroad programs were canceled due to COVID-19. A friend of his recommended that he study abroad in Taiwan.

In Taiwan, Naomi Ghahrai (right) felt “the feeling of being really independent, really self-sufficient”. (Courtesy of Naomi Ghahrai)

“I did a quick Google search and came across the Fulbright pilot program,” she said. “I’m so glad I applied on a whim and was accepted to study abroad this semester.”

Because she wanted to conduct research in chemistry, she chose National Taiwan University.

“My schedule is busy and certainly fulfilling. I attend a three-hour Chinese class four times a week and fulfill my responsibilities of a chemistry research internship at NTU to study beta protein aggregation -amyloid,” she said.

She has the opportunity to examine different health care systems around the world in her health policy class.

“I particularly appreciated when we discussed a comparison of the Taiwanese and American healthcare systems,” she said.

She teaches elementary students twice a week as part of her International Companions for Learning class.

“I tell them about my cultures (Japan, Iran and America) in English. It’s really fun. I love teaching my students, but my students also teach me about their culture. I learned a lot from them,” she said.

In her spare time, Ghahrai joined the women’s team at the university’s soccer club, although she never played soccer before her internship.

“I enjoy the physical challenge and especially the opportunity to connect with others through sport, regardless of our language barrier,” she said.

Although she has previously studied abroad in Mexico and Japan, this is the first time she has lived alone in a country without speaking the language. And that’s a bit discouraging.

“Honestly, I have never felt so vulnerable. It’s not loneliness per se, but the feeling of being really independent, really self-sufficient,” she said, adding that one of her biggest takeaways is how important it is “ to be open-minded. Being half-Japanese and half-Iranian, I understand the difficulties of cultural differences. Although I still experienced a culture shock coming to Taiwan, especially because I don’t know the language.

Ghahrai wants to use what she learned personally and professionally during her internship to help others. This fall, she plans to attend VCU School of Medicine under the preferred application track.

“I hope to become a physician focused on global health,” she said.

Naomi Ghahrai (center) holds the peace sign flanked by two women doing the same.
Naomi Ghahrai (centre) said her schedule was “busy” in Taiwan. (Courtesy of Naomi Ghahrai)