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ND Asian program growing

Dan Jacobs | Thursday, October 18, 2007

Over the past several years, student interest in Asian Studies has grown – prompting the University to expand its academic offerings in the subject.

Notre Dame’s connection to Asia began nearly 30 years ago, as University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh traveled there to create a stable interconnection and exchange with academics in China.

In 1996, eight faculty members founded The Center for Asian Studies on campus. Now in its 11th year, the Center is made up of more than 40 faculty and staff members with its own office. It now supports more than a dozen courses in many diverse fields of study.

The central mission of the Center is to promote and offer interdepartmental support for classes and research relating to Asian studies and Asian-American studies.

Director of the Center for Asian Studies and Anthropology professor Susan Blum is excited for the opportunities that lie ahead.

“Asia, of course, has 60 percent of the world population so anyone who is attentive to world affairs is aware of the importance of Asia,” she said. Blum said this is an opportunity to expand the program’s presence on campus even more.

At the forefront of the Center’s offerings is the supplementary major in Asian Studies or the minor in Asian Studies. Currently about 10 students are pursuing this supplementary major, with numbers expected to grow rapidly. Many students choose to take on this particular major or minor with a language such as Chinese. Others choose fields in which knowledge of Asia would be beneficial, such as business, Blum said.

“A lot of students are interested in Asia and want to demonstrate that they have a broad knowledge of Asia, but they do not have time in their schedule necessarily to have a major,” Blum said. “So they can demonstrate their expertise and their knowledge and their commitment to Asia by having a minor or a supplementary major, so I’m expecting our numbers to increase substantially in the next few years.”

Currently hundreds of students are taking Asian Studies and Asian-American Studies courses and Center members hope to see even more interest in the near future. While many students choose to study eastern Asian nations, such as China and Japan, the Center also engages in studies of cultures such as those in Korea, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia.

The Center also supports programs outside of the classroom as well, sponsoring both undergraduate and graduate Asian Studies groups.

Senior Jacqueline Collins, a Chinese major and a Theology minor, said she would like to see even more of a student presence and opportunities for academic research. In the summer following her sophomore year, she participated in a Center for Social Concerns program titled, “To Serve an Ancient Village in China: Historical Preservation, Religious Life, and Teaching English,” partially funded by the Center.

“That service trip was a pivotal experience in my study of China,” she said. “It gave me a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life in rural China – a quality of life that the government does not want foreigners looking into.”

The Center and other related groups also bring in speakers from across the world, such as Vodaphone Chairman Sir John Bond, who spoke recently. The Center also sponsors the Asian Film Festival in March, which brought in four Chinese directors to present their films earlier this year. The Center hopes to increase student involvement in many of their outreach productions to create a greater exposure and sense of ownership for the students, Blum said.

As the interest in Asia has grown, support for the programs and opportunities has required more coordination. In response, this summer, the University appointed Jonathan Noble, a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages, as advisor to the Provost on Asian initiatives.

Noble said the newly created position creates an opportunity to contribute toward better organization of the University’s offerings to students, as well as developing and coordinating even more expansive opportunities both on campus and abroad. Noble travels to Asia frequently and said he is always looking for and developing new initiatives for students wanting to become more knowledgeable of the Asian cultures.

“Overall, Americans are being exposed to Asia more, and so students coming even to Notre Dame are talking about how Asia might fit into what they plan to learn at Notre Dame, and how it may impact their careers in some way,” Noble said.

The University has also increased its support in its study abroad programs in Asia. Popular Asian programs exist in Shanghai and Beijing, China, as well as Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan. A new program at Fu Jen Catholic University in China began this summer, sending three students to study Chinese over a two-month period. The University also plans to begin an exchange program with the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the fall of 2008, Noble said.

“Clearly,” Noble said, “there’s an indication of greater interest in Chinese language, because they see it, I think, not only because it’s practical, but also in terms of entering the popular imagination.”