An American SLIS Student in Taiwan: Searching for Experience While Living Abroad

Whitney Zahar PhotoAn American SLIS Student in Taiwan: Searching for Experience While Living Abroad

by Whitney Zahar

I could not have imagined the amazing journey my life has taken since I boarded an airplane in 2009 and set off from my home state of Virginia to South Korea. I spent a year teaching English and immersing myself in a new culture. One marriage, one child, and three years later, I am living in Taiwan, again teaching English, before getting a position as an ESL editor and writer at an ESL materials publishing house. However, in the back of my mind, I always clung to my love of libraries, books, language, information, and all those things about which many SLIS students are passionate, so I entered the SLIS program in January 2012.

Each semester, I face the joys and challenges that come from being a distance-learning student, far away from not just the program and the cool onsite opportunities to network, gain experience, and participate in clubs, but from the country of my birth. This common “cultural divide” and “professional divide” is something experienced often by distance-learning students. Consequently, a big question I asked myself was: How can I, as SLIS student, get experience in the library field, when labor laws, language issues, and separation from my familiar network of professionals and friends appear to hinder my process? Although I’m at the beginning of my career as a student and as a librarian, I have begun to explore what I can offer to libraries overseas.

Like many SLIS students, I have a non-library job, so I’ve been on the hunt for library-related experience. After a couple of weeks of dead ends, I put out a call for assistance on one of my social networking groups on Facebook called Friends in Taiwan. This is a group of expatriate women who are professionals (some are mothers) and have lived in Taiwan for a while. I am so glad I pursued this angle because one of my contacts recommended contacting the international schools located in Taipei. I sent the head librarian of the Taipei American School library a cold email, introducing myself, explaining my situation, and asking if she knew of any volunteer opportunities at her institution or any other place. As luck would have it, she needed a volunteer, and now I’m in the process of building an interactive app feature for the library for the school yearbook. There are other possibilities of creating LibGuides for the school, organizing databases, and registering as a substitute teacher so I can have a chance to work with the students.

I feel that the opportunities are out there, even while living and working abroad. Experience can come in different forms, and resources can be built out of a willingness to reach out. Here are some additional tips to make the most out of your SLIS experience, even when you are far from home.

Be a Joiner! If you have enough time on your hands, and if you find something that fires your passion, join an organization. Most of them do have virtual meetings and activities in which you can participate. I am looking into renewing my ALA membership, as well as with the Theatre Library Association. I am also looking into the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. If any conferences are scheduled in your overseas location, check them out, or sign up for a virtual conference as a volunteer.

Reach out on the digital stage! One thing I have enjoyed about the SLIS program at SJSU is that even though I am far away, I still feel so connected. I use my email, Blackboard IM, and even Skype to communicate with my teachers and classmates. Whenever I have felt my confidence dip or whenever I have felt more isolated and alone, I felt encouraged to reach out. Because of that, I participated in an international research survey for my LIBR 204 instructor. I have started corresponding with the SLIS Career Liaison, who has offered me such valuable insights and resources. I have renewed contacts with previous classmates. That has helped me stay sane (which is no small task while juggling schoolwork with a full-time job and an active three-year-old!), but it has helped me begin to build professional contacts.

Make the most of the experience in another country. Learning a language is valuable in any field. I’m learning Chinese once a week with a tutor, who helps foreigners in corporate companies. I also learn Chinese through interaction with my son, and through my daily life shopping, going to doctor’s appointments, and on the job. Teaching will help me when I take LIBR 253, Information Literacy and Learning; and, in fact, I have tried to incorporate information literacy in my ESL classes. I visit libraries and museums to see how they are organized in another country. I have created databases to organize projects at work. I have interviewed my manager for her perspectives on working with foreigners.

I hope I can share more of my experiences at Taipei American School as well as my other adventures in being a SLIS student abroad. After all, librarians are keepers of story, and we all have great stories to tell.




Whitney Zahar is an American who has lived in Asia since 2009, specifically South Korea and Taiwan. She started her SLIS studies in Spring 2012 and loves every precious minute of it. She works for AMC Publishing in Taipei, where she writes and edits ESL educational materials. She is the proud mother of a beautiful and active three-year-old son, who will always speak better Chinese than she ever will. When she has free time, she volunteers at the Taipei American School Library, tries to keep up with her writing projects, and loves yoga and belly-dancing. You can contact her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.