Scholarship stay in Taiwan takes life in a whole new direction
Accepting a Prime Minister’s Scholarship changed the trajectory of Oliver Ibbetson’s life.
Like many young New Zealanders, he had vague plans to travel to the UK and experience the traditional “OE” in Europe. Instead, his life is now inextricably linked to Asia. All because he accepted a Prime Minister’s Scholarship to study Mandarin in Taiwan back in 2015.
“My entire life has been changed from that one experience because I’m now back living here with my Taiwanese wife and young Taiwanese son.”
Oliver’s first exposure to Taiwan came when he travelled there for a conference as part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network. “It was the first place in Asia I had ever visited in my life, and I was very excited about it,” he says.
A friend who had been a Prime Minister’s Scholarship recipient suggested he apply for a scholarship to study Mandarin in Taiwan. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Securing a scholarship turned everything on its head. Oliver left his job at an Auckland public relations firm to study Mandarin in Taiwan’s second city, Kaohsiung.
The scholarship was enough to cover his costs in Kaohsiung and allow him to complete the year-long course at Wenzao Chinese Language Centre. He says he purposely chose Kaohsiung, rather than the capital Taipei, where many people speak English.
Language skills improved quickly
“It’s so much more of a challenge when no-one speaks English,” he says. “It was full immersion from day one. I was learning Mandarin three hours a day, with the same amount of time spent on homework. My language skills improved quickly.”
Oliver was 25 when he travelled on the Prime Minister’s Scholarship. His class was a cultural melting pot, with students from Kiribati, US, Sweden, Australia, England, and Ireland. “We all faced the same challenges at the same time and became friends very quickly. We had a good expat community and a great social life.”
He built lasting bonds with three classmates and still maintains contact with them. But the serendipitous encounter which really transformed his life was meeting his wife, Grace. She was working for a public relations firm in Taiwan and had completed a Master’s degree in London.
“My entire life has fundamentally changed because I met my wife, and I will now have a lifelong connection with Taiwan.”
After marrying, the couple moved to New Zealand and Oliver took up a role as a senior political adviser at Parliament. But they returned to Taiwan two years ago when their son Charlie was born. They were determined that his early years would be spent there learning Mandarin, connecting with his grandparents, and building his cultural identity.
Oliver is currently juggling being a full-time dad and a part-time kindergarten teacher, while also studying for his MBA at National Taiwan University. Already armed with a Master’s in Strategy, he wants to future-proof his career prospects by adding another qualification.
Scholarship opportunity to build global connections
He isn’t exactly sure what his next role might be but feels sure that it will build on the language skills and connections he made by coming to Taiwan. If he can support a New Zealand business operating in Asia, even better.
“Building global connections is an important aspect of the Prime Minister’s Scholarship programme,” he says. “I came here with no connections and built a network of friends and contacts in both Taiwan and New Zealand.
“We become more globalised by sharing our stories and connections. Any bilateral relationship starts with an individual like me. That’s what the scholarship is all about.”
Oliver and his family will always be able to move seamlessly between New Zealand and Taiwan with a sense of belonging in both countries, and he knows that he has the Prime Minister’s Scholarship to thank for that.
“My entire life has been changed by that one experience, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”
Updated 6 Apr 2023