When it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships across borders and oceans, there’s no substitute for being there—shaking your partners’ hands, breaking bread and celebrating shared values among different cultures.
An NIU delegation that included President Lisa Freeman did just that this summer, on a whirlwind visit to the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia.
During a span of nearly three weeks, NIU representatives met with nearly 100 Huskie alumni, rekindled friendships with past participants of the university’s U.S. State Department-funded youth programs, strengthened relationships with partner institutions, launched research initiatives and established a new collaboration with a top university in Thailand.
“This trip demonstrated our deep commitment to Southeast Asia,” President Freeman said.
“It was incredibly productive as well,” she added. “We nurtured new and existing relationships that support student academic success, leadership development and research excellence.”
With one of only six federally funded centers for Southeast Asian studies in the United States, NIU has long enjoyed an international reputation for scholarship and engagement in the region.
The university frequently hosts the region’s educational leaders and dignitaries. Scores of students from Southeast Asia study here in DeKalb, and in turn NIU regularly sends students abroad for research and language immersion. More than a dozen NIU students traveled to Southeast Asia this summer on Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships.
Additionally, NIU’s Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program brings 50 high school students from the region to DeKalb each year to learn about cultural appreciation and community action. While in Laos, the delegation presented Vilaya Sirivong with the SEA Fellowship, an NIU tuition-waiver scholarship for selected past youth-leadership program participants.
“Visits like this one are important because this is a region of the world where face-to-face relationships matter,” said Eric Jones, acting director of the NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Jones, who was among the trip participants, also is one of nearly 70 NIU faculty who have been named prestigious Fulbright Scholars to the region since the center’s founding in 1963.
“We know the languages, we know the cultures, and we have many dear friends, alumni and students in these countries,” Jones added. “When our NIU president leads a high-level delegation to the region, people pay attention. It opens doors and facilitates our relationships.”
While meeting with prominent alumni in all four countries, the delegation made strides toward establishing a formalized Southeast Asia alumni network. In Indonesia, NIU representatives announced Nicolaus Harjanto as the Distinguished Alumni Award recipient from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Harjanto, who will receive the award during a visit to campus in October, earned his Ph.D. in political science from NIU in 2010 and plays a leading role in shaping Indonesian national policy.
Professor Catherine Raymond, a delegation member and director of NIU’s Center for Burma Studies, spent an extended period of time in Thailand and Myanmar, and was joined by center research assistant Carmín Berchiolly, NIU Professor Helen Nagata and Amanda Spradling, a recent NIU graduate in art history. Raymond and Berchiolly presented findings from their research into the art of Southeast Asian reverse glass painting, and Spradling presented her research on Bodhi-leaf iconography.
Raymond, who brings NIU students to Myanmar each summer, and Professor Nagata also launched a new research project on Burmese silk production in collaboration with Mandalay and Yadarbon universities. Silk has been an important aspect of Burmese identity for centuries.
“Dr. Raymond’s work regularly engages local communities in Myanmar and creates research and teaching opportunities for NIU faculty and students alike in such areas as art history, museum studies and other disciplines,” said Berchiolly, who is herself an alumnae of the art history program.
The NIU delegation also renewed existing agreements with a number of foreign universities and established a new memorandum of understanding with Thammasat University.
“Thammasat University is a premier institution in Thailand,” said delegation member Judy Ledgerwood, acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This agreement establishes a dual-degree program in economics, political science and non-profit and NGO Studies and will pave the way for more Thai undergraduates to come to NIU.”
Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of the NIU College of Education, and Terry Borg, director of the college’s Office of External and Global Programs, joined the delegation to make connections for Educate Global.
Educate Global partners with schools from around the world to provide NIU teacher-licensure students with hands-on experiences with different cultures, international colleagues and a support system for teaching. NIU is planning to implement Educate Global in West Sumatra, Indonesia, during the summer of 2020.
“Terry and I went to Padang, in West Sumatra, where we met with the governor, the head of education, English teachers and high school students to discuss education and to get a better sense of the needs and opportunities,” Elish-Piper said, adding that opportunities are also being explored in Laos.
“Everyone we met in Laos is looking for strong partners,” Elish-Piper said. “They really see us as potential collaborators.”
Other members of the NIU delegation included Jerry Blazey, vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships; Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the Department of Political Science; and political science professor Kheang Un.