Tsai Ing-wen made history as the first female President of Taiwan, winning a resounding victory in 2016. On her watch, Taiwan has established itself as one of Asia's freest democracies – becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019. Likewise, under Tsai, Taiwan has enjoyed a surge of international backing, with key U.S. allies openly acknowledging the island’s strategic importance. Tsai, who is of Hakka descent, was one of nine children born to a wealthy business family in 1956. After returning from her studies abroad, Tsai was appointed to be the youngest ever professor at the highly-respected National Chengchi University. By the early 1990s, she had ventured into governmental positions, including working as an adviser on the National Security Council and a minister on the Mainland Affairs Council. In 2004, she formally joined the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates for Taiwan’s national identity and protecting the island’s sovereignty against China's wish to unify the island with the mainland. In 2020, Tsai won reelection as President with more than 57% of the popular vote. That same year, she was named one of Time's most influential people and was #9 on Forbes' list of the most powerful women in the world.

A highly ambitious woman, Tsai's interest in studying law led her to Cornell University in 1978. After receiving her bachelor's degree from National Taiwan University, Tsai was admitted into Cornell's Master of Laws program, which is designed for students who already have a law degree from outside the United States. While the LL.M. program is one year, Tsai stayed at Cornell for two years, graduating with a Master of Law in 1980.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

Four decades later, after being reelected President of Taiwan in 2020, members of the Cornell community took notice. “We would certainly like to think that the lessons President Tsai learned at Myron Taylor Hall about collegiality and about the importance of the rule of law have had an impact on her career since graduating,” said Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. “But the Law School cannot realistically claim any credit for President Tsai’s tremendous success leading Taiwan for the past four years. That said, Tsai Ing-wen stands out among an illustrious list of Cornell Law School alumni who have gone on to distinguished careers in public service.”

Additionally, Tsai visited Cornell in 2008 to deliver the annual lecture for the Clark Program in East Asian Law and Culture. Speaking at Cornell Law School, Tsai discussed Taiwan’s strides in democracy, trade, and identity. Describing the status of China and Taiwan, she said, “Peace and stability serve the best interest of all the parties.” More recently, the President of Taiwan took part in a 2020 written Q&A interview with the Cornell Law Forum, the biannual magazine of Cornell Law School. Responding to a question on the importance of her alma mater, Tsai noted that, "My legal background gave me the intellectual tools to approach issues logically and analytically."