U.Va.’s link to the East:
East Asia Center enters its fourth decade
Third in an ongoing series
By Mary Carlson
On college campuses throughout the United States, the study of East Asian languages – defined mainly as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tibetan – has seen unprecedented growth since the late 1990s. And higher education experts predict that this trend will only intensify over the next decade. Even at the high school level, student interest in East Asian languages has increased. According to a College Board report released in the fall of 2005, some 2,400 high schools have begun building their Chinese language programs to prepare their students to take the Advanced Placement exam.
History professor Ron Dimberg, who served as the director of U.Va.’s East Asia Center from its beginning in 1975 to 1979, sees U.Va. as part of this national trend. “There’s no question that there’s more interest among undergraduates now than 10 years ago.”
Bradly Reed, the center’s current director, attributes the increase to changes both at home and abroad. “Our knowledge of China and other parts of East Asia has been grounded in ignorance for decades,” he said. “But since the Reform era [of the 1980s], China has attracted enormous interest for students who want to pursue jobs [there] in business or with the State Department.”
The East Asia Center takes an interdisciplinary approach, offering courses taught by more than 30 faculty who represent such disciplines as anthropology, history, English, politics, music, economics, religious studies, education, gender studies and architecture. The center offers two graduate programs: one, a master’s degree in East Asia studies that affords students great flexibility in designing their field of study; and the other, a joint degree with the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration that includes an internship in East Asia.
To complement its on-Grounds curriculum, the center provides students with a range of study abroad opportunities, including three University-based programs. The U.Va.-in-Shanghai Intensive Chinese Language Program is a total immersion summer program that couples rigorous language study and real-world experience.
The Semester in Tibet program is designed for students interested in learning Tibetan culture and language by spending a semester in Lhasa, the traditional center of Tibetan culture. Students may also enroll in China Gateway, an eight-week program designed by U.Va. faculty that centers on the study of Chinese language, history, society and culture with travel to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an, China’s ancient capital city.
The School of Architecture Summer in Beijing is another multi-disciplinary program for students interested in studying Chinese history, architecture, landscape architecture and environmental issues. And U.Va. is an associate member of the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies, which seeks to build the language skills of undergraduate majors in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering.
The center also provides information about dozens of study abroad programs available through other institutions, including Stanford, Princeton and Indiana University. As competition intensifies among schools seeking to attract the best students, Reed described the East Asia Center’s current challenges. “We need to build a program in Korean Studies. We want to offer a greater array of courses, and we need more funding for graduate student stipends,” Reed noted.
The center past
Founded in 1975, the East Asia Center is one of the oldest foreign study programs on Grounds. When Dimberg arrived as a new faculty member in 1968, undergraduates could minor in Asian studies, but there was no major program. He and several colleagues decided to change that.
Working with professors Shao-chuan “Tony” Leng, William S. Weedon and Walter Hauser, Dimberg founded the East Asian Language and Area Center with a modest grant from the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation. In short order, Dimberg applied for federal funding under the Title VI program and won an initial grant of $25,000. “We were in high clover,” he recalled.
Over the next four years, the center landed two, much larger federal grants. The good fortune continued as the Weedon family stepped forward with what Dimberg called “a very generous” endowment to fund the center’s operating expenses and travel grants.
The center was on a roll. In 1985, it launched its joint master’s degree program with the Darden School, one of the first such programs in the country. U.Va. has since the 1960s quietly built an East Asian collection, with holdings of more than 33,000 Chinese, Japanese and Korean monographs as well as 10,000 volumes of Chinese book classics,100 Chinese and Japanese periodicals and a multitude of Asia-related and Asian-language films.
The center present
As new opportunities in global enterprise and study beckon, the center must adapt by expanding its course offerings and continuing to provide financial support for students.
Two current students demonstrate the range of academic interests that the center serves. Laura James, a first-year master’s student, was drawn to U.Va. for its combination of archaeology and Tibetan language courses. James is no stranger to foreign language, having grown up with a mother who spoke French, but prior to coming to U.Va., she knew no Tibetan.
Last summer James took Tibetan language classes through U.Va.’s Summer Language Institute. This rigorous program essentially condenses one year’s worth of study into two months. “It was very intense,” she noted. “We worked with native speakers who teach and then take time to make sure you understand what you’re learning.”
This semester James works part-time as the center’s coordinator, handling clerical duties, organizing the lecture series and distributing applications for the various study abroad programs. Once she completes her degree, she envisions a career as an archaeologist in East Asia.
Unlike Rome, Greece and Egypt, she said, “That part of the world is almost entirely unexplored in terms of archaeology. I’ve wanted to go to an area where it’s wide open.”
Kevin Huttenbach will put his East Asia studies to use in very different ways. Having graduated from U.Va. in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs, he is set to finish his master’s degree this spring. But when he entered college, he had no idea that he would end up taking four years of Chinese language classes. “My first year, I was in the engineering school. But I was never completely sure about it,” he remembered. “A lot of jobs in engineering seem to be desk jobs. I wanted something more active.”
That’s when Huttenbach set his sights on foreign affairs, a major that would more likely lead to international travel. So far, he has applied for various jobs with the State Department and Drug Enforcement Agency. As for his Chinese skills, he said, “At this point, I’m proficient but
Articulating his hopes for the center’s future, Reed said, “We have to demonstrate that U.Va. has a firm commitment to developing this program. We’re just on the cusp of getting greater undergraduate and graduate enrollment in our courses.