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Carolina Asia Center awarded $900,000 grant to develop Southeast Asian studies minor

Christian C. Lentz at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday, Aug. 29th, 2022.

This summer, the the Carolina Asia Center received a $900,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, a not-for-profit organization based in New York, to further the studies of Southeast Asia at the University. 

With this grant, the University plans to develop a Southeast Asian studies minor, to expand its Vietnamese language instruction and to spread the study of Southeast Asia to other campuses.

Christian Lentz, an associate professor of geography at UNC, was the principal investigator of the University’s project, entitled “Bringing Southeast Asia Home.” 

The Luce Foundation has sought to endow multi-million dollar grants for the past several years with the purpose of developing Southeast Asia studies. 

“Luce has long been a supporter of Asian studies more generally, but they also know that Southeast Asian studies tend to be a bit overlooked by way of comparison with East Asia, especially China, but also Korea and Japan,” Lentz said. 

The money from the grant will be spent in different ways, one of which is undergraduate curriculum development, more specifically Vietnamese language instruction, according to Lentz. 

“We restarted Vietnamese language instruction two years ago — we are on year three — and we’re sort of gradually building support with the ultimate goal of having a full-time Vietnamese language instructor on campus so they can do 100, 200 and 300 level classes,” he said. 

The University offers various courses relating to East Asia and South Asia, specifically the languages spoken in these countries. However, there are currently no languages from Southeast Asia in which students can minor, until now. 

“Our East Asia program is absolutely fantastic and has been doing great work," Kevin Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center, said. "Our South Asia program is very well established, but for the past few years, the Southeast Asia wing of that has been the weakest of our regions in Asia in terms of the coverage, both in the curriculum and co-curricular supporting events.” 

The Carolina Asia Center is also looking to use the money awarded from the grant to develop a Southeast Asian studies minor housed within the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as supporting graduate students and faculty research in hopes that they will return to the University and teach later courses. 

Fogg has found that students reaching out to the center in regards to the grant have been students of Southeast Asian heritage. The center has been working with these students for years to create co-curricular programming for them, as well as pushing for languages such as Vietnamese to be taught at the University. 

“This grant is in some ways a concrete moment where students can see the work that we are doing, being recognized by an outside body,” Fogg said. 

For the last couple of years, the Henry Luce Foundation has had a multi-year grants competition known as the Luce Initiative on Southeast Asia, also known as LucSEA, with the main purpose being to strengthen the academic study of Southeast Asia in higher education. 

Helena Kolenda, the program director for Asia at the Henry Luce Foundation, explained both the process of applying for a grant, along with why the University was awarded the $900,000 grant. 

The advisors at The Luce Foundation were attracted to the University’s proposal for a few reasons. They were intrigued by the possibility of a new minor in Southeast Asian studies, the strengthening of Vietnamese language training and the possibility to strengthen the study of Southeast Asia — not only on UNC’s campus but also on other campuses within the region. 

“Part of the goal of the grant is to bring Southeast Asia home to North Carolina so that students here, or heritage students, or who are curious about that region, can start to build those connections more explicitly with that world region,” Lentz said. 

@nataliemcc212 |

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