Just last week, if someone were to ask Lily O’Clery where she would be spending the next year of her life, she wouldn’t have been too sure of her answer.
It might have been in South Korea, or really, anywhere else in the world, but it definitely wasn’t going to be in Taiwan on a scholarship from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
“My soul was a little bit crushed,” said O’Clery, 23, after not being selected as a finalist for the scholarship. “I had spent, like, from June to October, working on the application. So it was kind of devastating.”
Things have changed since May 14, when the University of North Georgia graduate was just an alternate for the scholarship, which “offers research, study and teaching opportunities in over 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students.”
O’Clery suddenly became a finalist for the Fulbright scholarship after others declined it. She will head to Taiwan in September to spend 10 months as an English teaching assistant.
“I think it’s a period of growth, and you really get to learn what your skills are,” O’Clery said. “I mean, I know how hard it is to learn a second language, especially one so different from your native language. So I know for these Taiwanese children, trying to do it at such a young age must be really difficult and really frustrating. So, I kind of want to alleviate a bit of that burden.”
She said she used to sit with a friend, Jillian Chang, during lunch at Glenn C. Jones Middle School in Buford. Chang would teach her Chinese, writing down the characters and trying to explain tone. Immediately, O’Clery was hooked on the language.
As she began taking Chinese classes in high school at West Hall, she learned more about the culture and took a couple of trips to mainland China with her family. She said she’s not exactly fluent, but she’s at an “advanced proficiency level.”
“My interest in Chinese never faded, and it was something that I was sort of good at and I liked doing it,” O’Clery said. “It never really felt too much like work.”
O’Clery did work to prepare the best application she could for the Fulbright scholarship. She said she spent a summer going to workshops with UNG administrators to practice the application process.
She had one page to tell the application committee about who she is and her plans for the future. She also had one page to write a statement of grant purpose explaining why she wanted to teach English in Taiwan.
She said it was hard to condense all of her thoughts into such a small space, but those workshops prepared her to apply.
“Lily came to almost all of our workshops in the summer to work on her application and she emerged as a leader in those workshops,” said Anastasia Lin, assistant vice president for research and engagement at UNG. “She was often one who would help others think through their writing process and which countries they wanted to go to and which programs they wanted to do.”
This will be the first time O’Clery has gone outside of mainland China, where she studied abroad in 2015.
She said she isn’t sure exactly where in Taiwan she’ll be placed, but she’s thinking it will be in a more rural area as opposed to Taipei, the capital, since she earned her bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature. With that degree, she thinks she may do better in a rural environment than some other students.
She also wants to to get out of her comfort zone and be away from Westerners she might otherwise rely on.
She said she’s ready to teach English and learn from the Taiwanese natives, too.
“The goal is for the people of the United States to connect to people of other cultures and just facilitate cultural exchange,” O’Clery said.