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Professor earns Gabriel dissertation prize

October 12, 2010

Wendy Cheng, assistant professor in the School of Social Transformation, will be awarded the 2010 Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize at the annual meetings of the American Studies Association in November for her dissertation, “Episodes in the Life of a Place: Regional Racial Formation in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley.”

The Gabriel Prize is awarded annually to the best doctoral dissertation in American studies, American ethnic studies or American women’s studies.

Cheng’s work develops a regional theory of racial formation through examining the everyday experiences of residents of four Los Angeles County cities in the West San Gabriel Valley, an area which became known as a “suburban Chinatown” in the 1980s and 1990s, but which is actually a multiethnic space that is roughly half Asian American and one-third Latino/a.

She says her own conceptions of the valley were stereotypical, until she lived there as a doctoral student at the University of Southern California.

“Growing up, my family would drive 100 miles from our home in San Diego to the L.A. suburb of Monterey Park for Taiwanese groceries,” relates Cheng. “But living in the community I realized there was an equally large Mexican American/Latino population that also had a long history in the area. The complexities of the place fascinated me. I wondered how children here grew up to think about race and how these minority-majority communities challenged our conventional ideas of suburbs. I dropped the dissertation project I had in mind and took up this one.”

Cheng, who joined the faculty this fall with joint appointments in Justice and Social Inquiry and Asian Pacific American Studies, earned a doctorate from USC’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and was most recently an assistant professor/faculty fellow in New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. She holds a master's from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bachelor's from Harvard University.

Like many in ASU’s newest faculty class and in the School of Social Transformation, Cheng is in the vanguard in breaking academic boundaries to develop new knowledge. The intellectual innovation here played a role in her decision to joins ASU’s School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which was formed just a year ago.

“It seemed like an exciting opportunity to build something new, to come in at the ground level when people have the energy and enthusiasm for that,” Cheng says. “And it’s special to be working in a transdisciplinary environment motivated by the values of social change, justice and transformation – there are few programs out there that aspire to or have even articulated that.”