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International research helps criminal justice majors prepare for future success

| Judy Berthiaume

This summer, three Blugolds immersed themselves in all aspects of the criminal justice system in Taiwan, an experience that is helping them better understand the similarities and differences that exist within criminal justice in other parts of the world.

The international research experience also is giving the UW-Eau Claire students confidence that they have the knowledge and skills to succeed in their own careers within the criminal justice field.

“The immersion really helped me see things from other perspectives within law enforcement,” says Courtney Wiemer, a senior criminal justice major from Chippewa Falls. “By learning about a centralized system, I can apply what I’ve learned to the decentralized U.S. system, which will help me positively shape the future of law enforcement policies and procedures.”

Senior Alana Petz agrees, noting that understanding how criminal justice works in Taiwan is helping her think more broadly and creatively about how she might make positive change in the United States.

“To improve our system in the U.S., it’s beneficial to know what other countries are doing and whether it’s working or not,” says Petz, a criminal justice major from Arcadia. “We can incorporate and learn from their processes. This immersion has definitely allowed me to compare and contrast our criminal justice system with the host country’s and to get ideas that could improve the system in America.”

Broadening students' understanding and thinking about criminal justice was among the goals of the three-week research immersion, says Dr. Ming-Li Hsieh, an assistant professor of criminal justice who led the Criminal Justice Institutions and Social Justice immersion.

“Learning, understanding and embracing a multicultural society is not merely an educational trend in the United States; it is also the key for alleviating many potential social justice conflicts worldwide,” Hsieh says. “This project gives students a comparative overview of criminal justice frameworks by exploring organizations, operations, standards and programs within criminal justice systems in a global context.”

A native of Taiwan, Hsieh has many connections with people who work within the criminal justice system there, making it possible for the Blugolds to interact with people in a variety of professions within the field.

Spending several weeks in Taiwan also gave students opportunities to learn about the cultural heritage of a traditional Chinese society, Hsieh says, noting that it also helped students understand how American values shape the criminal justice system in Taiwan despite Taiwan’s influence by Qing and Japanese rule.

During the immersion, the students conducted field observations and interviews at 25 sites in Taiwan, including prisons, law enforcement agencies, universities, courts and detention centers.

“Although it might not be easy to absorb massive amounts of criminal justice information in an international context in a short 21-day visit, by visiting these institutions in the private and public sector throughout Taiwan, hopefully this experience gives students a well-rounded view of Taiwanese culture, criminal justice institutions and social justice,” Hsieh says.

Students also rode along with Taiwanese police, observing officers’ daily routines and operations, and visited a police academy, district attorney offices and correctional facilities.

Petz says a highlight was touring the Chiayi Prison in Taiwan, where she learned about the differences between prisons in Taiwan and in the United States.

For example, Petz says, all prisoners in Taiwan are enrolled in their National Health Insurance, the same as all other Taiwanese citizens.

“In the U.S. prisoners' health suffers because most prisoners don’t have access to quality health care,” Petz says. “I learned a lot from this tour and brought back with me ideas that could change the United States’ prison system for the better.”

Wiemer says a highlight for her was touring the policing university where all officers in Taiwan go to school to train before becoming police officers, while Max Manz, a criminal justice major from Grafton, says spending time with officers at the Banqiao Police Precinct was especially meaningful to him.

The students spent significant time talking with police officers of differing ranks, which gave them a broader view of policing in Taiwan, Hsieh says.

“Often over high-mountain teas, we shared ideas about policing issues and challenges, and public perceptions of law enforcement in Taiwan and America,” Hsieh says. “Making tea and drinking tea is not just a part of the distinct culture of Taiwan, but also a way to show hospitality and to build meaningful host-guest relationships in every police station and precinct.”

In Taiwan, the Blugolds applied the research skills they’ve learned in their classrooms in a real-world setting and practiced taking field notes and conducting interviews, Hsieh says.

It was the research component of the program that convinced Manz to be part of it, he says.

“I heard about this opportunity from Dr. Hsieh during a criminal justice class, and that same semester I also was in a research methods class,” Manz says. “Hearing that I could put what I was learning in both classes into practice in a real-world setting was interesting. There are times in class when we talk about something, but I can’t always see how it actually works. So, this was a great chance for me to use what I was learning on campus in a real-world situation.”

While research was a major focus during their time in Taiwan, the students also spent time immersing themselves in the local culture and participating in many local activities.

For example, they participated in karaoke night with local officers, sightseeing with officers, and watching the Dragon Boat Championships.

All these activities enhanced the students’ understanding of the history and customs of their host country, Hsieh says.

“I definitely thought our cultural immersion activities added to my experiences in this new country,” Petz says. “It allowed me to observe and learn about the history of the country and why their culture is the way it is today. I was able to appreciate a culture different than mine and compare the two.”

Learning about the Taiwanese culture helped them make the most of their opportunity to pursue research in a foreign country, the Blugolds say.

“The Asian culture is different from American culture so being able to interact with people and see many different things opened my eyes to many things,” says Wiemer. “In some cases, the extracurricular activities and experiences helped me with the research because we could see interactions between officers and citizens and gain a perspective on if what we were hearing from people was accurate.”

The people of Taiwan were hospitable, which made her time there even more meaningful, Petz says.

“All of the people at the institutions we toured set aside time to answer our questions and give us tours of their facility,” Petz says. “I enjoyed these interactions and learned a lot about their procedures and processes regarding different aspects of the criminal justice system. Their generosity made it even more enjoyable because they cared about what we had to say and wanted to learn about the American criminal justice system as well.”

The students also visited several universities in Taiwan, where they presented to undergraduate and graduate students. Their topics were “A Glance at American Policing: Structure, Stress and Education” and “Criminal Justice Intern Jobs: Internship Experiences in the state of Wisconsin.”

The presentations created a meaningful two-way exchange among students from both countries, Hsieh says.

“That was important because we’re not just researchers who only take away information from those we visit, but we also are educators who contribute to an academic dialogue on American policing for the host institution,” Hsieh says.

As a criminologist, Hsieh says, she will continue to explore ideas from other governments’ experiences to improve decision-making within the U.S. criminal justice system.

The goal, she says, is help solve controversial debates and issues that have long been rooted within the system, such as police brutality and the use of excess force, prison overcrowding and treatment, and rehabilitative versus retributive punishment.

“I will keep encouraging my students to do comparative studies and cultivate their analytical thinking,” Hsieh says. “It is true that the value of diversity may not be easy to teach in the classroom. However, through international research or study abroad, students can open their minds, visualize the learned content and appreciate contextual environments different than those of America.”

Given the growing Chinese population in the U.S., it’s important for students who plan careers in the criminal justice field to have knowledge of social and criminal justice in multicultural settings, Hsieh says.

Students say the immersion enhanced their college experience, strengthened their learning and helped them think more broadly about their future career goals.

For example, Manz says he’s long struggled with public speaking. However, he gained confidence in his public speaking skills because of the multiple opportunities he had to present his research to various groups of people in Taiwan.

“This immersion gave me the chance to face my fear and become someone better,” Manz says. “The last presentation there was the best because I had so much practice by that time.”

The experience also gave him a better sense of what it means to do research, which is influencing his potential career path.

“I got to talk to my professor and learn more about grad school and the kinds of things I could do with a Ph.D.,” Manz says. “Now I know I want to go to grad school, so I can do my own research. This program gave me more than what I expected in terms of learning about a new culture and seeing what life could be like if I did my own research.”

The immersion was especially meaningful to Wiemer, a nontraditional student who didn’t think she would be able to participate in international research.

“I’m so glad I did it and glad I didn’t let my age stop me from such a great opportunity,” Wiemer says. “I learned how to think more critically about what I know, and it made me open up to things I knew nothing about.

“If you don’t experience something firsthand, it is hard to think outside the box and see opportunity as well as setbacks you may face when trying to make change. I think our criminal justice system has a lot of room for improvement, and by learning about what works for other countries I can help shape our system in a positive way.”

Photo caption: A team of UW-Eau Claire student researchers spent time this summer studying all aspects of the criminal justice system in Taiwan.