On a Tuesday in early September, the typically quiet lobby of the CGIS Knafel Building is abuzz with more than 100 people — students fresh from class toting backpacks, professors in their business casual, and curious passersby. A few read colorful flyers promoting an array of language courses. Others grab cured meats, cheeses, and nuts from charcuterie boards arranged on silver tables. The rest cluster in groups of three to five, leaning in to hear each other over the clamor. At the Harvard University Asia Center’s second annual reception for Southeast Asian studies, the excitement is palpable.
The room falls into a hush when Asia Center Director James Robson, a good head and shoulders taller than most attendees, assumes center stage. “Worst thing to break up a good party,” he jests.
Robson calls over a trio of instructors to join him at the front and commences a series of grand introductions. Hoa Le, a Vietnamese language preceptor, has been instrumental in supporting the center’s Southeast Asia efforts. Sakti Suryani, the newly hired Indonesian language preceptor, sports a range of talents, including singing. “Not now,” she says, sparking a wave of laughter.
Finally, he gets to the last: Lady Aileen Orsal.
“This hire, a preceptor in Filipino languages, is — I don’t say this lightly — something historic for Harvard,” Robson says, to applause and spirited hollers. “This is the first time we have Filipino languages taught at Harvard in its nearly 400-year history, no weight on your shoulders.”
This fall semester marks the first time that Harvard is offering Filipino. Spoken by tens of millions in the Philippines, Filipino ranks as the fourth most spoken primary language in the United States (after English, Spanish, and Chinese). It has been conspicuously missing from Harvard’s language offerings.
“It’s all over the news in the Philippines,” Orsal says in an interview, describing the congratulatory messages she received from colleagues, former students, and even strangers. “They’re happy because they feel like the language represents them, and they’re excited because then they will be heard.”
“I was brought up really simply in that very small town in the Philippines, so I feel like sometimes this is just overwhelming,” she admits. An expert in Filipino language instruction and Philippine history and politics, Orsal is leading Harvard’s elementary and intermediate Filipino (Tagalog) courses.
This semester also sees the University’s establishment of a full-time preceptor position in Bahasa Indonesian, at the elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels. Suryani brings almost a decade of teaching experience to the classroom, having worked with organizations like the Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Languages (for which she serves as the secretary) and the Southeast Asian Language Council symposium (for which she leads the Indonesian team).
Suryani says that a month into her class, students have already expressed surprise that they’re learning so fast. “So far it’s been so good,” she says. “I’m an energetic teacher, so I guess that helps.”
“It’s just a really exciting time to be Southeast Asian at Harvard,” Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24 says with a laugh. As co-president of the Harvard Philippine Forum and chair of The Crimson’s Editorial Board, Wikstrom has written a series of op-eds on Harvard’s role in U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, which she’s partially writing her senior thesis on. While she commends the many actors who brought these preceptor positions to campus, she regards this as a “win with an asterisk” — meaning, this celebration must not obscure Harvard’s historic and ongoing pedagogical neglect toward Southeast Asian studies.
“It’s a win, but not in the way that it completely undoes that history or completely absolves Harvard of having to take further steps,” Wikstrom says. She refers to the fact that, as it stands, pedagogy on Southeast Asia — the region encompassing Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — lacks a dedicated concentration, let alone an established department. Instead, it exists as a smattering of scholars and programming dispersed across Harvard’s vast campus.
This is why some people are calling for the creation of a Southeast Asian studies department, as a third pillar to the already-existing South Asian Studies and East Asian Languages and Civilizations departments. Academia broadly has relegated Southeast Asia — one of the world’s most diverse areas, containing more than 100 ethnic groups, 655 million people, and 1,000 languages and dialects — to an afterthought, which many attribute to the region’s centuries-long history of colonization.
Wikstrom finds this hard to justify, given Harvard’s status as the highest-endowed university in the country. “It’s impossible to fathom that an entire region of the world, which houses millions of people, is missing from Harvard’s formal departments,” she says.
Accordingly, some Southeast Asian students feel that their identity is not valued by the University. “Coming to Harvard, I initially had this implicit sense that I was going to be giving a degree of that connection to my heritage up,” Wikstrom says.
Harvard writes on their website that “Our more than 3,700 courses, taught by esteemed faculty members and enhanced by Harvard’s unparalleled libraries and resources, will take you as far as your imagination allows.” And yet, their advertisement as an education with “limitless possibilities” falls short when it comes to studying Southeast Asia. Students like Wikstrom, whether undergraduate or graduate, cannot easily pursue their intellectual interests.
“Sometimes we are too U.S.-centric in our thinking,” says Sugata Bose, a History professor who focuses on South Asian and Indian Ocean history and teaches one of the only courses on Southeast Asia. “In today’s world, it’s very important when we talk about inclusion, to think about regions of the world that have not been properly represented on the Harvard curriculum.”
Bose advocates for a change of mindset at the highest levels of the University — for administrators to recognize “that there are peoples in these parts of the world who are significant, and also that there is actually outstanding scholarship on the peoples of these parts of the world, which we do not pay sufficient attention to here at Harvard.”
Harvard’s programming pales in comparison to those at Cornell, University of California Berkeley, University of Hawaii, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and Yale to name a few, which offer centers, departments, and degrees in Southeast Asian studies.
Faculty and students have long vocalized the need for an institutional home for Southeast Asian studies. However, setting up a department is much easier said than done. It’s an expensive endeavor, often depending on the goodwill of a few wealthy donors.
Faculty and students nevertheless view these new preceptor positions as a first step and hope that the languages will inspire further engagement with Southeast Asian studies, kickstarting the momentum needed to carve out a space within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
But what’s at stake goes beyond just an administrative formality. At stake is the recognition that historically neglected regions are worthy of study, and ultimately, the question of who belongs at a place like Harvard.
‘Goodbye, Filipino Heritage’
When Carisma M. Wong ’26 embarked on her Harvard journey, she was eager to explore her burgeoning interest in sociology. She especially wanted to learn about how it could provide new avenues through which to examine her home country of Malaysia. Wong would raise her hand, send emails, and meet her professors after class to ask them about issues pertaining to Southeast Asia. But each time, she was met with the same response: Let me follow up with you about that. (She appreciates that they always did.)
“The classes that I attend never talk about my people or my stories or my region,” Wong says. “It’s always up to me as a student to extrapolate what I learn onto whatever lived experience that I’m thinking of. And that’s totally valid. As a student I know I have to do that.”
But Wong had expected more. “Harvard is supposed to be this crucible of intellectual activity,” she says. “But I’m finding myself having to stretch across departments and cobble together an education about a region that’s very relevant and rich for cultural and sociological and historical analysis.”
This year, Harvard offers just one course with Southeast Asia as its primary focus: Contemporary Southeast Asia through Literature and Film, taught by Annette Damayanti Lienau. Aside from language instruction, 16 courses integrate elements related to the region, but they remain supplementary. None of these courses are helmed by a professor whose primary area of interest lies in Southeast Asia.
“We don’t have a historian who is fully devoted to the study of Southeast Asia,” Bose says. By contrast, there are 19 professors who specialize in European history, six in Chinese history, and three in Japanese history. (The History Department, which is supported by more than 50 faculty members, encompasses more than 25 geographical regions).
Bose introduced a course on modern Southeast Asia in the spring of 2022, and taught it once again in 2023 before going on leave this academic year.
“I sensed that there was a yearning among students, especially undergraduates, for such a course,” he says. “It’s a good way to teach students about comparative imperialism or colonialism, and also anti-colonial nationalism. That’s because, in this region, we find British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and American colonies.”
Since the 1500s, Southeast Asia has been the subject of European conquest — from economic exploitation and violent military campaigns to racial and ethnic discrimination. American imperialism, through instances like the bombing of Laos and the Vietnam War, has also shaped the region. Today, the effects are still felt by Southeast Asians around the globe.
Wong looks back on Bose’s Modern Southeast Asia course as one of the highlights of her freshman year. “But the fact that it was so fulfilling makes it just all the more painful that now, going forward, I have so little course choices,” she says. “This academic year, the pickings are slim.”
This year’s 16 courses related to Southeast Asia are scattered across Harvard’s schools. While the language courses are situated in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Kennedy School offers courses on authoritarian politics in 14 countries including Thailand and the Philippines, and the Graduate School of Design features courses on Rohingya refugee camps and the Singaporean landscape.
However, the process of cross-registering to enroll in courses at another school is quite involved. Students must navigate a petitioning process, which involves justifying the course’s relevance to their plan of study and enduring waiting periods. And, they don’t count automatically toward non-elective degree requirements.
That’s assuming that students find these courses at all. “If there’s no department that has ‘Southeast Asia’ in the name, it makes it very difficult to find,” Robson says.
Like the courses they teach, “many Southeast Asianist faculty are atomized or divided,” says Lienau, a Comparative Literature professor. “One of the challenges that we have had across faculty who have research interests, language skills in the region, or personal connections to the region has been trying to collaborate across these institutional divisions that are difficult to overcome administratively.”
Because no institutional home specific to Southeast Asian courses exists, Southeast Asian languages have been folded into the FAS’s East and South Asian studies departments — even when their connections are limited. For instance, Indonesian, Thai, and Filipino courses are placed in the South Asian Studies Department and Vietnamese courses in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department. Robson expresses his gratitude to the departments, which he says are “very kind to host those preceptors.”
“Vietnam is geographically not in East Asia, per se, but we share so much history with other countries in the East Asian region,” says Hoa, the Vietnamese preceptor. “Because Harvard didn’t have a Southeast Asian department, or a unit, it makes sense to have the Vietnamese language program under this.”
Scholars also don’t consider Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines part of South Asia. Thus, Harvard’s assignment of these languages to their respective departments is an aberration.
“It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense,” Robson says. “As far as I know, you’re not going to find maybe anywhere else in the country where those languages would be in a South Asian Studies Department.”
“I do think the distinction is weird,” says Renee Susanto, a second-generation Chinese-Indonesian American and first-year student at the Divinity School. “South Asia is not Southeast Asia.”
Regardless, Susanto, who is enrolled in Advanced Indonesian, stresses that it is better that the courses exist in an alternate department than not at all. “I cannot tell you how influential being able to take Indonesian classes was in understanding my own ethnic and cultural identity, and also helping in my own research,” she says.
And yet, as Vivian T. Nguyen ’25 prepares to write her senior thesis on Southeast Asia, she feels the absence of formal support. Nguyen, the co-president of the Harvard Vietnamese Association, wishes there were more “classes that actually are relevant to what I want to write about” and that there were more faculty who specialize in Southeast Asia: “Who do I have to be my adviser?”
“Having access to professors who can actually support a thesis in Southeast Asia — as opposed to turning to someone who’s more an expert on women, or memory, or cultural politics — would be super helpful,” she says. “Because there are such nuances in the region that aren’t necessarily reflected elsewhere.”
The decentralization of courses and faculty specializing in Southeast Asia also weighs on graduate students, a number of whom report struggling to find suitable advisors. Susanto, who serves as the graduate intern for Harvard’s Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights, says the scarcity of opportunities in Southeast Asian studies at Harvard is “really disappointing, because I came to graduate school to do that.”
The lack of resources for Southeast Asian studies, in fact, drove David C. Atherton ’00 out of Southeast Asian studies.
After living with a host family in rural northern Thailand during a high school exchange program — an experience he describes as “deeply transformative” — Atherton not only learned Thai but also fostered “a really close connection to that family and to Thailand.” He entered Harvard in 1996 hoping to deepen his academic exploration of the country, but soon discovered that “there was very little available.”
Instead, the University’s resources were concentrated in the East Asian Studies program. While Atherton did manage to spend his summers in Southeast Asia writing for Harvard Student Agencies’ now-defunct travel guide, “Let’s Go,” he decided to pivot his formal academic focus toward China, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies.
Today, Atherton is an East Asian Languages and Civilizations professor at Harvard, specializing in 17th through 19th century Japanese literature. He says with certainty that if there had been a more robust path to follow in Southeast Asian studies, “I would have stuck with Southeast Asian studies. No question.”
Similarly, Althea Lee ’26 came to Harvard intending to continue learning about her home country of Singapore. Last semester, unable to find a Government course directly related to Southeast Asia, she enrolled in Global Cities in East Asia.
Lee now plans to concentrate in Government and East Asian Studies, and appreciates that the class encouraged her to expand her intellectual horizons. “In some weird way, it forced me to look outside of what I typically gravitate towards,” she says.
With that said, Lee still wishes that information on Southeast Asia was “more accessible,” so that individuals “interested in Northeast Asian relations could learn about Southeast Asia as well.”
While applying to college, Wikstrom was hoping to find a place where she could study the Filipino diaspora — a subject tied to her upbringing as a half-Filipino in California, where 1.2 million Filipinos reside. Intrigued by Harvard’s history program, Wikstrom combed through the course catalog for terms like “Philippines” and “Tagalog.”
Each and every time, she says, she was met with “absolute radio silence.”
“It’s this very visceral sensation of being confronted over and over again with that absolute lack of something, which redounds upon one’s own sense of identity,” Wikstrom says. “There was this sense that it wasn’t a place where people from my background would go.”
“There’s just nothing institutionally to make it seem as though it was a valuable part of my identity, or valuable part of my history, or valuable part of the United States’ history,” Wikstrom adds.
However, she recognized, “it’s Harvard” — a world-renowned institution with exceptional classes, equally exceptional faculty, and a kind of prestige that could open doors in both her career and life. In the end, she couldn’t pass up on the opportunity.
Upon accepting her admission, Wikstrom says, “I was like, ‘Well, goodbye, Filipino heritage. I’ll come back to you later.’”
Pushing a Snowball Down the Hill
From hosting Indonesian poetry readings to providing research grants to bringing figures like the Dalai Lama and Viet Thanh Nguyen to campus, one organization has stepped in to bridge instructional gaps and unite diverse studies across Asia: the Harvard University Asia Center.
Established in 1997, the Asia Center seeks to promote an international relations and comparative approach of the continent by facilitating collaboration among researchers from across the University. Notably, the center’s founders explicitly acknowledged the need to grow scholarship on Southeast Asia.
“We had really little on South and Southeast Asia, and we felt that we needed to expand in those areas,” the Asia Center’s inaugural director, Ezra F. Vogel, told The Crimson in 1998. This goal of fostering Southeast Asian studies, in fact, was written explicitly into the center’s founding documents.
“I really give him credit for thinking that long ago about the need to address Southeast Asia,” Robson says.
More than 20 years later, the Asia Center writes on their website that they seek to address “the historical neglect” of the study of Southeast Asia, and “build a hub for Southeast Asian studies at Harvard University that is comparable to the centers that exist for East and South Asia.”
“Now is the time to simultaneously recognize the importance of Southeast Asia,” the site states.
The Center, which relies on its own funding efforts, has been making incremental steps toward fulfilling this goal. Nine years ago, the Asia Center established a Thai Studies program which includes a professorship and prolific lecture series. To accomplish this, anthropology professor Michael Herzfeld and his colleague Jay K. Rosengard rallied funds from Thai donors who, according to Herzfeld, stood “across the political spectrum,” amassing around $7 million.
“Through several remarkable bits of luck, we ended up managing to raise a lot of money,” Herzfeld says. (Former Thai Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai — supporters of the 2014 military junta which, during its period in power, committed flagrant human rights violations in Thailand — provided critical support to the fundraising.)
Herzfeld noted that the administration’s ambivalence about creating the program quickly disappeared once the funding was secured. “The administration hadn’t originally perhaps seen Thai studies as terribly important,” he says. But eventually, “they got the message.” However, the Thai preceptor position currently sits unfilled, as the Asia Center searches for a hire.
Robson says the Asia Center viewed Thai Studies as the first step in seeding Southeast Asian studies on campus. In 2020, the Center recruited a specialist to assess Harvard’s position in Southeast Asian scholarship relative to its counterparts like Yale and Cornell.
What the specialist found was that “Harvard actually had a really admirable number of scholars and people engaging in research on Southeast Asia, but there was no center. There was no identity to that because there’s no department, there’s no centers, no nothing that brought people together,” Robson says.
Following the assessment, the Asia Center created an informal Southeast Asia initiative, bringing together a University-wide faculty committee, members of which became responsible for the Center’s many lecture series. The Center also created a Graduate Student Advisory Group in order to “ensure that the perspectives and priorities of the next generation of scholars are kept at the forefront,” they write on their website.
The Asia Center subsequently provided administrative support to this group of graduate students and enabled their co-organizing of Harvard’s inaugural Southeast Asian Studies Graduate Conference. Last spring, the conference convened more than 40 presenters, screened a film and offered a Q&A with its Singaporean director, and ran a workshop called “Turn Your Dissertation into a Book.”
“It was really quite a very energizing time to be able to pull so many people to Harvard to do a very multidisciplinary, very interdisciplinary conference,” says graduate student Yi Ning Chang, who helped organize the conference.
Graduate student Yang Qu, who chaired the organizing committee, feels proud to have provided the grounds on which many disconnected scholars could collaborate. “This platform is so necessary for them to come together, not just for the exchange of knowledge, but to just get to know each other,” he says. “I mean, everyone was so hyped, and some people traveled 14, 16 hours, all the way from Asia.”
Jorge Espada, the Asia Center’s associate director for Southeast Asia programs, hopes that the relationships forged by this conference, continued lecture series, cultural programming, and of course, the newly established language courses will set in motion the drive toward a comprehensive Southeast Asian studies program: “With Southeast Asia, we’re trying to create this snowball and push it down the hill, and have it then perpetuate itself.”
Dividing the World
As the curtain fell on World War II, partnerships between universities and U.S. intelligence agencies set the stage for a transformative era in academia. The government incentivized universities to grow scholarship on what it considered politically relevant nations, leading to the birth of “area studies.”
Former FAS Dean and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy lauded the connection between university scholarship and U.S. intelligence agencies, writing in 1964 that “It is still true today, and I hope it always will be, that there is high measure of interpretation between universities with area programs and the information gathering agencies of the government.”
The Slavic Languages and Literatures Department was consolidated in the 1950s, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies was established in 1954 with the explicit purpose of training “selected men for service in private industry and in the government” to “counter the Soviet threat in the Middle East.”
During these years, Harvard also grew its East Asian program. In 1937, the University created the Division of Far Eastern Languages, which combined the previously separate Japanese and Chinese language programs. In 1941, the Division, with the History Department, offered its first Ph.D.
When China opened up to the West in 1978, further resources went into the already existing department. “My sense is that there was so much excitement about China when it started to open up, that rather overshadowed everything else,” Herzfeld says. “There was a lot of money available for China studies.”
“Much more of Harvard’s resources have been historically devoted to the study of East Asia, mostly China and Japan,” Bose says.
Today, the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department boasts 67 affiliated faculty members and has many connections to universities across East Asia, providing its students with vast resources in research and opportunities abroad.
“The top universities had more or less divided up the world among themselves,” Bose says of the development of area studies across U.S. universities. Harvard did not choose Southeast Asia. “It wasn’t seen as a strategically important area, which was complete nonsense,” Herzfeld says.
The exception was Vietnam, which, because of the Vietnam War, has received disproportionate attention compared to other Southeast Asian countries. Vietnamese language instruction at Harvard started in 1971, 43 years before any other Southeast Asian language was introduced. A Vietnam Public Policy Program was established in the Harvard Kennedy School in 1988.
Historically, the region of South Asia has also been “rather neglected” by Harvard, says Bose. Bose was the first tenured professor whose expertise was in South Asia, and he helped establish the infrastructure for South Asian Studies at Harvard.
Through the Asia Center, Bose founded the South Asia Initiative in 2003. The initiative later turned into an institute, before becoming the South Asian Studies Department in 2011. The department now boasts a roster of 19 affiliated faculty members, the instruction of 13 languages — with the option to petition more — and a growing collection of translations of more than 80 texts in Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
That said, the professorships that Bose and his colleagues worked tirelessly to create did not bring in new scholars on South Asia to the university. Instead, because of administrative hiring decisions, the Department has only been able to consolidate existing scholars with expertise in the region.
Bose explains that to grow the Department, he had to take on the “additional burden” of raising funds in addition to his regular responsibilities. “That cannot be the primary task of faculty members who really should be allowed to pursue their own scholarship and teaching,” he says. “But to the extent that we serve as the directors of centers and institutes and so forth, we get drawn into this kind of activity.”
According to Lienau, taking on service tasks like these is difficult for many professors, particularly non-tenured faculty who face more pressure to publish. Thus, Southeast Asian studies is caught in an unending cycle: no professorships exist because there is no one to raise money for them, and there is no one to raise money for them because no professorships exist.
As Anthropology professor Arthur M. Kleinman says, “On the point of who’s going to actually do this, it’s the hires that departments decide to make that will determine to what degree Southeast Asian studies becomes an important part of FAS.”
Bose hopes that Harvard will allocate money to disrupt this cycle of institutional inertia. “If the administration decides that we really need to build strength in the study of South Asia and Southeast Asia, then I think the University should be prepared to devote some of its old funds to help strengthen that area of study and not rely exclusively on new funds,” he says.
For now, Harvard does not fund any Southeast Asian professorships directly, and instead programs need to find their own funding sources.
The establishment of the Filipino (Tagalog) preceptor position was made possible by a $2 million donation from Martin G. Romualdez, the current speaker of the Filipino House of Representatives and nephew of the former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos is known for leading a repressive, violent, and deadly regime of martial law in the Philippines, while also accruing vast sums of capital — up to $10 billion, per a Filipino government estimate — for him and his associates.
This story mirrors that of the Thai language program.
These donations have coincided with the rise of Southeast Asia economically. According to Bloomberg, Southeast Asia contains some of the fastest-expanding world economies, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Robson lauds Asia Center founder Vogel’s focus on Southeast Asia so long ago. “He sensed the rise of Southeast Asia before others did in some way,” Robson says.
“We’re seeing that today with ASEAN becoming such an important regional power — this RCEP business agreement, the largest trading block in the world,” he says, referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement between 15 countries in the Indo-Pacific. “And then the US finally coming around to recognizing the importance of this with Biden making trips to both the ASEAN meetings and the G20.”
Herzfeld stresses that while money supports studies, it shouldn’t be the only impetus. “We shouldn’t let the amounts of money that are available to us determine the outcome, not if we really want to continue to be an intellectually robust institution. The robustness doesn’t come from the cash,” Herzfeld says. The cash “provides you with the means to carry out the research, to do the teaching, and so on.”
‘A Homecoming for All of Us’
“An intellectual program has to think, ‘What is the core that will sustain interest over a long period of time?’ We’re talking about decades, perhaps even centuries ahead,” Herzfeld says. He believes that any scholarly program devoted to cultural understanding must situate language learning at its heart.
Kleinman concurs that language instruction is the most natural — and sustainable — starting point for an area studies program. “If you’re going to take Southeast Asian countries, cultures, and societies seriously, you need to teach the languages,” he says. “We’re doing that. We’re starting to do that.”
“Language opens up every door, really,” Suryani says.
However, Bose points out that language instruction, while a crucial initial step, should only mark the beginning of a more comprehensive effort. He underscores the “desperate faculty shortage” in South and Southeast Asian studies, particularly in modern and contemporary studies. “If we are serious about our commitment, then we desperately need more appointments,” he says.
As to what increased investment in Southeast Asian studies would actually look like, several avenues emerge.
Herzfeld envisions the establishment of a Southeast Asian administrative framework “that gives lots of free play to the individual country interests and marshals resources in support of serious research and excellent teaching.”
Robson prefers one particular model: a comprehensive Asian Studies department that features three distinct pillars — East Asian studies, South Asian studies, and Southeast Asian studies — and doesn’t “sacrifice the depth and expertise” on each country in those regions.
To Lienau, the most actionable steps are creating a concentration for Southeast Asian studies or a secondary offered through an existing department. “That would be perhaps a relatively feasible way to move forward,” she says.
Lienau suggests that these ideas may gain traction, given that a strategic planning committee is actively exploring new ways of restructuring Harvard’s arts and humanities. An internal document obtained by The Crimson proposes new pathways for interdisciplinary studies, the consolidation of four language groups into one concentration, and the expansion of the Ethnicity, Migration, Rights secondary into a full “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, Migration” concentration — which Harvard affiliates have been fighting for since at least the early 1970s.
The reconfiguration could perhaps open a spot for Southeast Asian studies as well. “The institutional future of Southeast Asian studies is of course implicated in these broader strategic planning conversations,” Lienau wrote in an email.
At the end of the day, faculty members and administrators stress that students are instrumental for Southeast Asian studies at Harvard.
“Students play an absolutely vital and unrivaled role in building momentum, visibility, and community for studies in the region through enrollments — they speak volumes — and through attendance to related events,” Lienau says. “In a way, there’s no greater vote of confidence in Southeast Asian studies.”
Wikstrom says that students, especially those in the Harvard Philippine Forum, have long advocated for the teaching of Filipino at Harvard. She notes that in the mid-2010s, there was a “concerted effort” in which members devised an entire curriculum, named potential instructors, gathered around 30 interested students, and presented these materials “basically on a platter” to the head of the languages division. They received no response.
In 2021 and 2022, Southeast Asian affinity groups across campus — representing Burmese, Filipino, Indonesian, Khmer, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, and Vietnamese identities — banded together to host a week of diverse cultural programming, dubbed “Southeast Asian Visibility Week.”
As the Philippine Forum and Students for Myanmar guided students in preparing chicken adobo and curry dishes, the Vietnamese Association gave students copies of Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” and the Khmer Student Association screened “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which features Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. The Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia Association invited Singapore Literature Prize-winner Jeremy Tiang to campus for a panel discussion on the politics of fiction.
“We hope to increase representation of Southeast Asian culture among campus activities, given that it has traditionally been overlooked or subsumed within broader Asian-American culture,” the groups wrote in a joint statement. Ahead of the spring semester, students are shaping plans for another week of Southeast Asian visibility.
Campus activity aside, given falling enrollment in humanities majors, it’s uncertain how many students will want to pursue a Southeast Asian studies degree.
Since the 2000s, American universities have witnessed a widespread decrease in students majoring in the humanities. This trend, possibly triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, has seen them increasingly favoring STEM fields in hopes of securing financial stability.
Two years ago, The Crimson’s Freshman Survey reported that just 7.1 percent of the Class of 2025 anticipated concentrating in the humanities, compared to 33 percent intending to concentrate in the social sciences and 49.1 percent in the sciences, engineering, and applied sciences concentrations.
But many consider the new teaching of Filipino and Indonesian at Harvard a hopeful sign.
“There’s still dark clouds on the horizon of the humanities and of the study of other cultures — I think in higher education in general — but this is a gleam of light,” Atherton says.
“It’s symbolic at so many levels, not just for being a milestone for Southeast Asian studies at Harvard,” he continues. “But also at a moment where people are questioning across higher education the value of language learning at all, and the value of learning about other cultures and where it feels like it can be easier and easier to live in one’s own cultural silo.”
The time is ripe, Bose says, for a “global intellectual vision.”
On the bright morning of Sept. 5, the first day of classes, a nervous Orsal greets 14 excited students as they file one-by-one into her classroom and take their seats around a massive wooden table. The room, finished with dark pine, oak, and white plaster, occupies the third floor of the century-old Emerson Hall and resonates with echoes of past luminaries.
Emerson was the first building in the country devoted to the study of philosophy. It has welcomed the likes of Charles William Eliot, Class of 1853, Harvard’s longest-serving president; renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner; and William James, the “father of American psychology.” This semester, Emerson extends its embrace to a humble yet determined Filipino woman, fueled by a desire to bring recognition to her homeland and share its language with the world. History is made yet again.
Orsal stands before her students at the helm of her classroom, her small figure framed by the dark expanse of the chalkboard. The room quiets down, and she takes a breath.
“This is like a homecoming for all of us,” she tells them. “This is our home. This is our family, and let’s explore more about each other.”
Correction: October 9, 2023
A previous version of this article misquoted Asia Center Director James Robson as referencing a “reset trade agreement.” In fact, he referenced the “RCEP trade agreement.”
—Staff writer Ryan H. Đoàn-Nguyễn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.
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