Naomi Ghahrai standing in the foreground on a pathway that leads to a large Buddhist monastery.
Naomi Ghahrai visited Fo Guang Shan in Kaohsiung. It is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. (Courtesy Naomi Ghahrai)

Naomi Ghahrai embraces new study abroad opportunity in Taiwan

VCU grad is conducting research, taking a class and teaching young students as part of the program.

Share this story

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

“I knew I wanted to conduct research abroad and take global health classes,” Ghahrai said. “Since I have never visited Taiwan before, I was interested in exploring a different country. I heard so many good things about Taiwan from my friends. They would talk about how it is so convenient, has delicious food, is cheap, has great scenery, and has kind people. I knew I just had to study abroad there.”

Ghahrai is completing a chemistry research internship and taking a Chinese language and health policy class while teaching English to elementary students in rural areas of Taiwan. The internship, which continues until 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 a member of the Honors College in May with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Since I am half-Japanese, I can speak Japanese, but I cannot read or write Japanese kanji, which consists of Chinese characters. So I was really interested in learning Chinese characters,” she said.

At first, she wanted to study in Japan because she has family there, but most Japanese study-abroad programs were canceled due to COVID-19. One of her friends recommended that she look into studying abroad in Taiwan.

Naomi Ghahrai (right) and another woman look up, pointing their own cameras toward the camera.
In Taiwan, Naomi Ghahrai (right) has experienced "a sense of being truly independent, truly self-reliant." (Courtesy Naomi Ghahrai)

“I did a quick Google search, and I came across Fulbright’s pilot program,” she said. “I am so happy I just applied on a whim and got accepted to study abroad this semester.”

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

“My schedule is packed and definitely fulfilling. I attend a three-hour Chinese class four times a week as well as fulfilling my responsibilities of a chemistry research internship at NTU investigating the aggregation of amyloid-beta proteins,” she said.

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

“I especially enjoyed it when we discussed a comparison of the Taiwanese and American health care systems,” she said.

She teaches elementary students two times a week through her International Companions for Learning class.

“I teach them about my cultures (Japan, Iran and America) in English. It is really fun. I enjoy teaching my students, but also my students teach me about their culture as well. I have learned a lot from them,” she said.

In her spare time, Ghahrai has joined the women’s soccer club team at the university, even though she never played soccer prior to her internship.

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

Although she had studied abroad in Mexico and Japan previously, this is the first time she is living in a country alone without speaking the language. And that is a bit daunting.

“Frankly, I have never felt as vulnerable. It is not loneliness per se, but a sense of being truly independent, truly self-reliant,” 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 in cultural differences. Though I still experienced cultural shock coming to Taiwan, especially because I do not know the language.”

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

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

Naomi Ghahrai (center) holds up the peace sign flanked by two women doing the same.
Naomi Ghahrai (center) said her schedule is "packed" in Taiwan. (Courtesy Naomi Ghahrai)