An Innovative Global Curriculum

Minerva Schools Comes to Taiwan

2020 / September

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Brandon Yen

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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文‧謝宜婷 圖‧莊坤儒

Minerva Schools是一所以世界為教室的大學,學生沒有實體校園,但會在四年內走訪全球七個城市。他們透過視訊與老師互動,每堂課彷彿專題研討會,注重師生間的大量討論。這所學校不只強調專業能力,更培養學生終身受用的思考能力。今(2020)年,他們首度到台灣,拜訪大學生涯中最後一個城市──台北。


Minerva Schools的合作單位台灣大學,舉辦了多樣的工作坊,在不同領域老師的引導下,Minerva學生透過實地參訪、親手操作或小組討論,與台大學生互動,深入了解台灣多元面向的文化。








兩位老師都對明年的工作坊抱持期待,也將微調課程,讓背景多元的Minerva學生,有機會在課程中運用自身專業,來探討活躍老化(active aging)的議題。


Minerva Schools錄取學生時,不以入學考試成績為重點,而是想法與經歷,因此,學生的背景多元,也從彼此相處中認識更多文化,除此之外,他們每到一個城市,不可預料的文化衝擊與環境變化,也增強他們對文化差異的包容力。

「我們每次到一個城市,剛好都是當地社會動盪的時刻。」出身台灣的學生Eric Lin回想,2016年到美國紐約,當地總統大選後,社會出現紛爭;2017年到南韓首爾,鄰近國家北韓揚言要發射飛彈;2018年到印度海德拉巴,當地政府貪汙,因此提款機無法使用;2019年到德國柏林,社會因敘利亞難民議題,情勢緊張;今年到台灣,剛好遇上新冠肺炎爆發,學生只好於三月中旬提早離開台灣。

因為這樣的特殊經歷,加上台北是Minerva Schools最後一站,學生決定邀請蔡英文總統為畢業典禮致詞,透過線上會議,分享台灣防疫的成功關鍵,並給予畢業祝福。「本來以為這次邀請不會成功,沒想到過了大約兩個月,竟然收到回信了!」邀請計畫的其中一員Eric Lin分享,這次計畫從寫信邀約到會議架構討論,都是由學生一手包辦,是他們給自己的挑戰。

每到一個城市,學生也要完成「實地作業」(Location Base Assignment, LBA),運用自身專業,探討當地文化。喜歡烹調的Eric Lin選擇以台灣食物歷史為主題,介紹古亭的老房子餐廳樂埔町,日治時期的宿舍,經2013年台北市文化局修復,現在成為米其林推薦的法式餐廳。而來自英國的Liberty Pim熱衷實驗教育與媒體傳播,於是到VIS國際實驗學校舉行工作坊,進行教學。


在台北的兩個月,多數Minerva學生經常在台大圖書館與住處間往返,為視訊課程做準備,也抓緊時間完成「拔尖整合專案」(Capstone Project)。這項專案的主題由學生自訂,依自己的興趣與專長,提出一項報告、發明或事業計畫等等,為期總共兩年。

主修人文應用的Liberty Pim,在音樂串流平台Spotify上,製作Podcast節目「進步的代價」(The Price of Progress),探討文明發展帶來的負面影響;而來自俄羅斯,同樣主修人文應用的Tatiana Soskina,則以部落格分析為題。兩人在新冠狀肺炎爆發後,決定繼續留在台灣,他們認為台灣是目前最安全的國家,而且生活機能高。

Liberty Pim肯定台灣防疫的努力,也對「全民合作」的社會氛圍感到佩服。「台灣文化與英國文化不太一樣。在這裡,每個人願意為了大家健康,做一些調整。即使這些調整不太舒服,但是大家因此會更安全。」除了防疫成效,Tatiana Soskina則對我國政治印象深刻,今年一月總統大選時,她觀察到各候選人的擁護者都擁有堅定的政治信念,民眾也相信透過選舉能產生改變,這與她家鄉的情況截然不同。

出身台北的Eric Lin,在海外求學四年,回到家鄉後,發現很多地方都改變了,深刻體會台北是一座變化快速的城市。即使身為在地人,他發現自己不一定知道Minerva同學剛發現的台灣秘境。「台北附近的山我幾乎都爬過了,但是從朋友的分享,我才發現虎山旁的小路段,是我還沒爬過的。」他從中省思:「台灣是我們的家,但不表示我們比他們懂。」有時,透過外國朋友的視角,當地人能更了解家鄉。


Minerva Schools選擇體驗城市時,有幾項基本要求:基礎設施完善、網路連線快速、政治經濟發達、社會多元等等。台北不僅符合這些條件,也是華人世界的重要城市,因此成為該校最後一站的體驗城市。

Minerva Schools創辦人、現任執行長Ben Nelson鼓勵學生在台灣時要思考,什麼是華人文化?台灣與中國大陸都使用華語,但是兩者的體制不同,對世界也產生不同影響。另一個值得思考的是:台灣與美國都以多元著名,但「多元」在這兩個社會,呈現出來的樣貌相同嗎?

Ben Nelson今年二月曾造訪台灣,並拜訪四到五間大學,他觀察到在台北有許多投入教育與商業的社群,社會風氣非常自由與開放。一些有意改革教育的學校也表達與Minerva Schools合作的意願,未來該校將會從中選擇一間大學合作,融入Minerva Schools的教學方法、課程設計與自行設計的視訊平台「Forum」。

這次合作機構台灣大學,原本只負責協助Minerva Schools辦理學生簽證,但是副校長周家蓓認為,只提供行政協助過於可惜,於是邀請該校在台代表來洽談,由台大國際事務處協助規劃,幫助學生從活動中認識台灣文化。「這次的合作很難得,從導覽到工作坊,非常充實,學生在其他城市,沒有這樣的經驗。」周家蓓表示。

陳怡伃也表示,透過這次工作坊,Minerva學生得以深入社區,與當地人互動,進而反思自己的生命。Tatiana Soskina也認同,在很多大城市,人與人之間關係疏遠,但在台北這個城市,民眾都很友善,樂於幫助有需要的人。

推動台大與國際合作經驗豐富的周家蓓期待未來與Minerva Schools的合作,希望從中學習其強調思考的教育方式,也期許未來參與工作坊的台灣學生,能透過共同學習,去認識不同文化與教育背景的學生,觀察他們在課堂的提問與反應,藉此培養對多元文化的認識。她也相當認同Ben Nelson的創校理念:「大學的責任應該是培養學生一輩子可以用的能力與思考。」

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