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Students push for Southeast Asian studies development

Southeast Asian Studies Initiative hopes to hire specialized faculty, create classes, host lectures

The Southeast Asian Studies Initiative is a fledgling student-led project with the goal of increasing academic visibility for Southeast Asia and its diasporas.

The initiative began when founders Quinton Huang ’19 and Xiao Wei Yeap ’19 worked with Professor of American Studies and History Evelyn Hu-Dehart to create a 24-person seminar on modern Southeast Asian history that was first offered in spring 2016. 

“What we found is that Brown has a lot of classes and a lot of focus on Asia, South Asia and East Asia. But there really isn’t a focus at all on Southeast Asia,” said Andrew Ton ’20, co-president of the group. “We think it’s an important region, and if you want to study racism or power structures, you can’t have a full conversation without talking about the full Southeast Asian experience.”

After completing the course, the students created the initiative to expand on their learning experience, said Taing Nandi Aung ’19, co-president of the group.

For one of the initiative’s first events, the students hosted an exhibition that showcased undergraduate work, including thesis projects and poems, that highlighted the region. “The point of (the exhibition) was to show that there are people on this campus who are interested in studying the region and they are doing so independently,” Aung said, adding that the University should be able to provide students with the resources to conduct studies in a collaborative setting.

The group has also hosted University faculty lunches with staff who study the region and collaborated with other student groups, such as the Vietnamese Student Association and the Khmer Student Association. The students hope to invite faculty from nearby universities to give talks about their research on Southeast Asia in the near future, Ton said.

“That’s an opportunity for students to network as well as learn about what a faculty member who is studying the region is doing,” Ton added. “Those resources aren’t available to students at Brown at the moment, and we are trying to change that.”

Director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia and Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Ashutosh Varshney, the second speaker in the group’s faculty lunch series, agreed that Southeast Asian study is a distinct area of academic focus, stating that “both East Asia and South Asia are studied greatly, but Southeast Asia as an arena of inquiry … tries out for serious attention and has much to offer.”

Currently, the group is petitioning the University to recruit an adjunct professor who focuses on the region, a Southeast Asian language instructor, a presidential diversity post-doctoral fellow or a graduate student to teach undergraduate courses on Southeast Asia. The group hopes that at least one of these positions will be created by spring 2019.

“I think those are the right things to ask for. The question is going to be how to raise funds for these activities,” Varshney said. “Both the student community and the University will have to think creatively, and then something substantial can happen.”

The group plans to seek funding through the University’s Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, the Brown Asian American Alumni Alliance and various private foundations and federal language initiatives, Ton said.


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