Carolina secures $900,000 grant to advance the study of Southeast Asia

Through efforts coordinated by the Carolina Asia Center, the grant will grow UNC-Chapel Hill’s work on Southeast Asia and enhance the University’s ability to serve as the hub for Asian studies in the Southeast region of the U.S.

A woman in in a field in Sa Pa
Photo by Raymond Tu '21 of a Hmong woman in Sa Pa, Vietnam, the country his parents are from. There, Tu studied HIV treatment programs and sharpened his Vietnamese language skills.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has won a $900,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation through its Luce Initiative on Southeast Asia, for the project “Bringing Southeast Asia Home.”  

Through efforts coordinated by the Carolina Asia Center, this multi-year grant will grow UNC-Chapel Hill’s work on Southeast Asia and enhance the University’s ability to serve as the hub for Asian studies in the Southeast region of the U.S.

“Southeast Asian studies can and should play a significant role in making lasting changes to our public university, especially because it serves a diverse and changing U.S. South,” said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in a letter of support for the grant.

The University chose to pursue this award to build on existing strengths and fulfill a commitment to the study of Asia. UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, identifies Asia as a strategic priority for the institution.

“We are grateful to the Luce Foundation for recognizing Carolina’s potential for excellence in the study of Southeast Asia,” said Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer. “This gift will help Carolina realize its goal, articulated in Carolina Next, of developing a university strategy for Asia and becoming a pan-Asia powerhouse.”

Carolina has a history of leadership in the study of Asia. The Carolina Asia Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is the sole U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center on Asia in the U.S. Southeast. UNC-Chapel Hill is also the only university in North Carolina that offers language instruction for Vietnamese, the state’s sixth most-spoken language.

Though the project “Bringing Southeast Asia Home” will be initiated at UNC-Chapel Hill, its effects will reach students and faculty throughout the UNC System. “It will improve educational opportunities across the state and position the University at the forefront of research and teaching about this region,” said Becky Butler, adjunct assistant professor of Linguistics and co-author of the grant proposal.

Carolina will double Vietnamese language courses, which were re-introduced with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs (OVPGA), in Fall 2020 in response to growing student demand. Thanks to the UNC System Language Exchange, students at any system school will be able to take the courses for credit at their home institution. Across North Carolina, heritage and non-heritage students will have greater access to a dynamic world region in tandem with the state’s diversifying population.

“Growing up, I spoke little Vietnamese and never knew how to read or write the language of my parents and grandparents,” said Jennifer Tran ’24, a student in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.  “I also grew up in a predominantly white community, so I don’t have much knowledge of my culture besides my own family traditions that were brought from Vietnam. I continued to expand my knowledge about my culture by studying my native language, and I am so glad that UNC has the opportunity to continue to develop the curriculum for future students.”

Baiquni, a doctoral student from Indonesia, is excited about what the grant will mean for the expansion of the study of Southeast Asia at Carolina.

“As a student of and from Southeast Asia, I know that the region has a lot to offer to the global discussion of various fields of study, from social science and environment to diverse issues in the humanities,” he said. “I believe this grant certainly will help many more scholars of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians like me contribute to Carolina’s understanding of the world today.”

Christian Lentz, associate professor of geography and principal investigator for the grant proposal, has long advocated for the expansion of Southeast Asian studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and in 2019, he supported a student petition for Carolina to add Southeast Asian languages to the curriculum.

“The Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs joined with the Carolina Asia Center and with faculty across the University to make an intentional investment in pursuit of the Luce grant,” said Lentz. “I’m thrilled to see our efforts finally come to fruition.”

In recent years, the OVPGA has invested unrestricted funds from the Chancellor’s Global Education Fund that demonstrate the University’s commitment to Southeast Asian studies in order to position the University’s proposal for success. These investments supported the relaunch and continuation of Vietnamese language instruction and hiring of a post-doc in the Carolina Asia Center to expand Southeast Asia programming and develop a successful proposal. The OVPGA will also support a faculty residency at Carolina’s longstanding strategic partner institution in Southeast Asia, National University of Singapore, in 2022-23.

“I am thrilled that support from my office helped bring this grant home,” said Stephenson. “Recognizing the standout strengths of area and language studies at Carolina, I am committed to raising funds and providing support to our area studies centers—a foundation of UNC’s claim to national preeminence in preparing the next generation of global leaders.”

Lentz submitted the grant with an interdisciplinary team, including Butler, Angel Hsu (Department of Public Policy) and Noah Kittner (Gillings School of Global Public Health).

The grant will also provide targeted support for students with undergraduate summer research internships, graduate student dissertation completion awards and a student working group.

Grant funds will afford meaningful opportunities for faculty as well. The University will bring distinguished post-docs to campus to work on Southeast Asian topics and fund UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members who do not have a background in Southeast Asian studies to explore the region and how it connects to their research.

“UNC-Chapel Hill faculty are already conducting cutting-edge research in Southeast Asia in fields such as demography, geography, environmental science, public health and anthropology,” said Kevin Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center. “But the footprint of Southeast Asia in the curriculum is small, and the many scholars working on the region have had limited opportunities to collaborate across disciplines or grow this field.”

To build Southeast Asian studies across the University, UNC-Chapel Hill will also launch an interdisciplinary minor in Southeast Asian studies, the first of its kind in the U.S. Southeast.

“This investment by the Luce Foundation will help us meet student demand for cultural courses and language instruction, while creating a new collaboration to bridge the faculty’s global expertise with growing Asian American programming and courses at UNC,” said Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs.

The expansion of Southeast Asian studies at UNC-Chapel Hill will raise the visibility of Asian diaspora populations in the state and region. “In their feedback, reviewers from the Luce Foundation found Carolina’s proposal especially innovative in the way it bridges the study of Southeast Asia and engagement with Southeast Asian diaspora communities in the Southeastern United States,” said Butler. Carolina specifically sought funds for community engagement and will build off the recent establishment of the University’s Asian American Center.

In addition, the grant will promote continued collaborations with UNC System minority-serving institutions and historically Black colleges and universities.

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., the Luce Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy.

The initiatives of “Bringing Southeast Asia Home” will begin in Fall 2022. For more information about the project, contact Kevin Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center.