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Sage Scholarship gives Watjen opportunity to study in Laos

July 07, 2008

Laos is a poor, landlocked country in Southeast Asia with a per-capita income in 2007 of $710. Most of its population lives on subsistence farming, and it has a tropical monsoon climate, according to a U.S. State Department report.

It’s worlds apart from Paris, London and Rome, the more familiar destinations for travel abroad.

But ASU’s Meg Watjen was overjoyed when she learned that she was the winner of the 2008 Sage Family Southeast Asian Studies Scholarship, which provides for a six-week summer study in Laos.

Watjen, an anthropology major, plans to study the diffusion of chili peppers from South America and Central America to Southeast Asia. She’ll use her research from Laos – and from Indonesia in previous trips – to write an honors thesis.

“It’s only in the last 500 years that chilies have arrived, yet they are a central part of Southeast Asian cuisines,” she says. “They are used differently in different countries, so this is one thing I will look at. Another is how they arrived in each country. I will compare the island of Indonesia, influenced by thousands of years of sea trade, to landlocked Laos, which received influences via land and river routes.”

Watjen will conduct her study by going to cooking schools and markets.

“I’ll spend approximately two weeks in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang,” she says. “Both have cooking schools – though these are for the most part just informal restaurants that teach you to cook your own food, and then you sit down and eat it.”

She also hopes to study with a well-respected cook in Laos named Vandara Amphayphone, whom she read about in Trippin’Mag.

Watjen says she applied for the Sage Family Scholarship because “I am working on a Southeast Asian (SEA) studies certificate through the Center for Asian Research, and I am focusing on SEA for my honors thesis project.”

“Though I have spent a little time in SEA, I have never been to Laos but have heard fantastic things about it and the people there,” she says.

“I am very excited about the opportunity and most grateful that Mr. Bill Sage has continued to support ASU students who wish to travel to Laos.”

Last year’s winner, Rebecca Townsend, says she wanted to study in Laos because she was considering a career path involving Southeast Asia.

“I was particularly intrigued by Laos because it isn’t as well known in the United States compared with Thailand or Vietnam,” Townsend says.

“A lot of people thought I was a bit crazy for wanting to go, but it wasn’t at all the experience many people imagine when they think of less-developed countries.

“The Lao people were, of course, very friendly, but one of the things that struck me the most was the pride they had in their country and culture. I think Americans, myself included, tend to view the world through Western eyes.”

Townsend will begin the master’s of Southeast Asia program at the University of Michigan in the fall.

James Rush, a professor of history who oversees the Sage Scholarship, says that the most important thing about the scholarship is that “it provides an opportunity for an ASU student to gain an in-depth exposure to Laos during an extended study tour.”

“Although recipients do execute a specific project in Laos, the larger value of the experience lies in traveling throughout the country and being exposed to its variety and beauty, becoming acclimatized to Laos’s tropical climate and human habitat, meeting and living with Lao families, and being exposed to aspects of Lao culture – including language, food, religion and social customs,” Rush says. “Travel like this can be transformative.”

Sage, who endowed the scholarship four years ago, received a degree in political science from ASU. He worked for the Agency for International Development in Laos, building new schools and putting Lao youth into Ministry of Education training programs in preparation for teaching in rural areas of northwest Laos.

When he returned to the United States in 1975, he began working with Lao refugees in California.

The Sage Family scholarship is a tribute to Sage’s parents, Lloyd G. and Twyla M. Sage, “who gave me the opportunity of going to ASU,” he says.