ASU center receives $1.2M grant for Asian studies research

Center for Asian Research prepares students to be global citizens

map of asia


A globalized world requires global citizens, and Arizona State University's Center for Asian Research has been at the forefront of preparing students for that reality for more than 50 years. Recently, the center received a four-year Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships grant of $1.2 million to support outstanding ASU graduate and undergraduate students studying Asian languages and area studies.

“Nationally, there are few universities that can offer Title VI FLAS resources for their students,” center Director Juliane Schober said.

The purpose of the FLAS Fellowship is to foster a cohort of individuals to become experts in business, government, academia and related fields who are trained in the languages and cultural knowledge critical to U.S. interests. The fellowships cover tuition and a stipend, and range up to $15,000, plus tuition for some awards.

This month, the Center for Asian Research awarded 17 FLAS Fellowships for the 2020–21 academic year to ASU undergraduate and graduate students across many schools and disciplines, including: the School of International Letters and Cultures; the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies; the School of Politics and Global Studies; the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; the W. P. Carey School of Business; and the School of Life Sciences.

Religious studies graduate student Blayne Harcey and supply chain management undergrad Delaney Shultz are two current and former FLAS Fellows. Below, they share about the importance of Asian studies and their experiences as fellows.

For a complete list of fellows, visit the Center for Asian Research website.

headshot of ASU grad student Blayne Harcey

Blayne Harcey, religious studies graduate student at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies
FLAS Fellow for academic years 2018–19, summer 2019, 2019–20, and 2020–21

After completing his master’s degree in comparative religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, Harcey came to ASU to focus on South and Southeast Asian traditions.

“Not many schools offer programs in religious studies with a focus on Buddhism and Southeast Asia,” he said.

Harcey is using funding from his FLAS Fellowship to research the economic and sociocultural implications of the development of the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal.

“The FLAS Fellowship is phenomenally important for not just work in the humanities but work in a whole lot of fields, because it allows for language training that’s really important for getting at how people understand the world,” he said. “Language skills are really important for understanding people's worldviews. It’s just a really great opportunity that puts ASU on the map but also gives those interested in Asian studies a lot of resources to be able to continue our work.”

Question: What drew you to your particular area of study?

Answer: Religious studies is about trying to understand how people make and inhabit the worlds they live in, how they make meaning in the world, how they come to understand different interactions with other cultures, not just their own. Religion cuts across economics, politics, social formation, all of these kinds of things. So looking at the way Buddhists and other people interact with places helps us understand how these things are a lot more connected than they might originally seem. Development is a huge thing that is usually seen as secular, but it’s also part of projects related to religious sites. So religious studies allows us to get at these kinds of complexities about people and how they inhabit these places, but also how different communities can use these places as well.

Q: What’s a day in the life like when you’re conducting your research in Nepal?

A: Nepal is pretty underdeveloped in the sense that there’s not a lot of resources for digitizing archives, so a lot of my fieldwork is going into these archives in Kathmandu and trying to find archival materials and documents about the site. Then on the ethnographic side, I go out and interview people in these Buddhist minority communities who have recently started to invest heavily in the development of the site. One community just finished building a temple there in 2018. So I ask questions about how they imagine the place, what their motivations are for being a part of the development, things like that. I also interview other Buddhist communities from other parts of the world that now visit this place on pilgrimage or as tourists. And then a lot of the fieldwork is also observation. I spend time there, find out who’s coming and why. I try to get a glimpse of what goes on there on a daily basis. I also talk to people who live near the site to find out how their daily lives have been changed by the devolvement of this place. I’m trying to gather any kind of data that helps me get a better picture of what this place means to different communities across the board.

Q: What are some of your major findings?

A: According to the minority Buddhist communities I’ve spent time talking to, the reason they’re starting to invest in the site now is because up until 2015, Nepal was a Hindu monarchy. It was officially disbanded then, and now, under the new democratic republic, those communities have more political power, more voice. Part of that voice is that they can partake in this project now, in a different way than they could under the monarchy. Not that they were ever totally restricted, but the government had previously worked with foreign Buddhist communities. So only after political change were minority Buddhist communities from Nepal able to get involved in the process. And it’s important to get that information out there, about how these projects that the government claims are meant to open the site up for universal appreciation haven’t really allowed the communities that live in this area to be a part of it. So I’m trying to get clear about who’s involved and what steps are being taken to fix that.

Q: Why is this an important area of study?

A: This place is really significant because Nepal is a small country between China and India, which are both big global superpowers. So its development is a way of asserting national pride, even though most Nepalis don’t consider themselves to be Buddhist. But the fact that Buddha was born in Nepal is a big cultural reference. It’s on buses, T-shirts. It’s everywhere. So it’s really important for Nepalis that Buddha was born in Nepal. But it’s also important that this place is developed in a way that will benefit Nepal.

I think my research is situated to problematize the way that people in Western academics understand Buddhist places and other places of cultural significance all over the world. We need to seriously consider how we evaluate and understand these places before we can create these grand plans for intervening. UNESCO might not like to hear what my research uncovers, but the goal is not one of judgment. It’s to help us all understand the way these places are part of people’s normal lives that we don’t really understand because we’re not there. And the only way to really get a good understanding is to spend time with the people who live there in order to bridge the gap between how people in Western society see these places and how people who live there actually see them and use them. I hope it sheds light on the fact that there are actually real people involved in these processes and not just these huge superpowers.

headshot of ASU undergrad Delaney Shultz

Delaney Shultz, rising senior and honors student studying supply chain management, Spanish and Chinese at the W. P. Carey School of Business
FLAS Fellow for academic years 2018–19, summer 2019 and 2019–20 

Before Shultz received funding for her studies through the FLAS Fellowship, she was working a number of odd jobs on and off to help pay for her schooling, something she said took away from her ability to focus.

“Having this scholarship has really helped me to focus on what I’m passionate about, which is learning languages and supply chain,” she said. “And being chosen as a fellow is something that stands out, especially when you’re learning about different cultures and finding ways to connect with others. It’s a very valuable thing to have on your resume.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, she had planned to intern with KPMG International Cooperative, a multinational professional services network, this summer. Instead, the company extended their offer to a full-time position, which she hopes to begin next year.

Question: What drew you to your particular area of study?

Answer: I’ve been speaking Spanish most of my life. My mom is bilingual because she grew up in Spain, so she brought that into our household, and I really enjoyed it and found that I was really good at it. When I went to high school, I wanted to keep learning languages, and I had neighbors who were learning Chinese who encouraged me take that. Then I liked Chinese so much, I decided to add another language, so I added French. I was just a language fanatic, and I knew I wanted to go into something international, either for government or the private sector.

Q: What was your experience like studying abroad at Princeton University in Beijing?

A: It was the most intensive Mandarin language program that I was able to find. After that summer, not being able to speak English the whole time, I really noticed my Chinese had exponentially gotten better. I just finished writing a 2,000-character portion of an essay in Mandarin, which will probably be about 6,000 characters when I’m done. It’s about business logistics and transportation systems of goods in China and the history of that and how it can get better based on research. Because of the program, I’m able to do stuff like that and I’m more comfortable conducting business in Chinese.

Q: What did you like most about being part of the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship?

A: I really liked going to meetings and being part of the fellowship. I was surrounded by so many smart people. Every time we had a meeting, there was this new Asian language I’d never heard of. One meeting I went to, someone did a presentation on Sanskrit. It just looked like a ton of squiggles to me; it made Chinese look easy. I love getting to interact with people who are really dedicating their lives to Asian studies.

Q: Why is this an important area of study?

A: A lot of times when it comes to international business, people lack the ability to connect. I see that between American and international students in my daily life at ASU. It’s a problem I’ve been tackling with my honors thesis. I think people just have little bit of discomfort when working with diversity and people who are different from them. They don’t mean to, they just don’t have similar backgrounds, so it’s harder to understand each other. And not just in business, but in general, when I travel and use the language of the country I’m in, I’ve made a lot of friends and connections that I know I can rely on if I ever go back.

Top photo courtesy Pixabay.

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