UCLA Graduates Its Third Class of Southeast Asian Studies Majors

UCLA Graduates Its Third Class of Southeast Asian Studies Majors

Aenoy Phengsy and Yuko Takahashi collect memories. (Photo by Angilee Shah)

They come from different places and are headed down different paths, but share a love for Southeast Asia.

The third class of UCLA's Southeast Asian Studies (SEAS) graduates completed their studies in June, 2005. Four students completed the major and nine completed the minor.

This year's class, says academic counselor Asiroh Cham, was particularly devoted to the region. "As a whole, I think they're excited about Southeast Asian studies but unsure about what path they'll take," says Cham.

The graduates in the SEAS major this year are Thy Ahn Tran, Duong Ton, Aenoy Phengsy and Yuko Takahashi. Both Phengsy and Takahashi wish they had studied abroad, an opportunity Cham says students in the SEAS major, an interdepartmental degree program, should not miss. Cham, who graduated from the program herself in 2004 and spent a semester in Vietnam, says, "There's nothing like studying a region and actually being there."

The SEAS major is relatively new and is still growing, says the chair of the program and historian George Dutton. The selection of courses, he says, is not as wide and regularly scheduled as they should be. "Majors have to be creative in putting together a course of study," Dutton says.

But the program is growing steadily; enrollment in Dutton's own classes' has been increasing every year. About seven faculty members teach courses about Southeast Asia regularly and several of them offer two or more courses. Several visiting professors also add to the available courses. In all there are between fifteen and twenty courses, including advanced language instruction, offered each quarter. Introductory courses, Dutton says, are often overenrolled and pressed for teaching assistants. Since Fall 2002, the Introduction to Southeast Asia course has had 50 or more students in each section.

Cham says the graduates this year, whether or not they stay in the realm Southeast Asian studies, are walking away with an excellent set of skills and she is confident they will go far in their careers. Two of the program graduates, Phengsy and Takahashi, took some time out of their graduation festivities to reminisce about their experiences and discuss their plans.

Rebellious -- in a good way

Aenoy Phengsy came to UCLA knowing one thing: a college education is key to her future. The rest, though, was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants impulsive. Phengsy's philosophy in life is to do what makes her happy: "I don't want to have plans," she says adamantly.

So as a freshman Phengsy was, of course, undecided about what she wanted to study. She was sure she wanted to learn Spanish, but ended up studying Thai. She was one of the few high school students who approached long reading passages on the SATs with glee -- in fact, she still gets an excited look in her eyes when she mentions them -- so she knew she was good at humanities subjects. She finally chose SEAS because, she says, "I just like learning it. I don't care if it's a major nobody knows about."

Phengsy is a first generation Laotian American, born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in the United States. UCLA coursework, she says, gave her insight into her own history as much as it widened her perspective about the histories of others. "In high school they don't teach you about Southeast Asian history," she says. In Laotian culture, it is generally improper for younger people to ask their parents and grandparents about their personal histories, Phengsy says. She still does not know exactly how her family ended up in a refugee camp, just that her uncle fought against the communist government in Laos and was sent to a re-education camp for 15 years. "It's difficult to talk to your parents about why they came [to America]," Phengsy says.

But when the Secret War in Laos and Thai refugee camps came up in her history classes, Phengsy found a framework in which she could approach the subject short of asking her family to relive painful memories. She also found an area of study that kept her motivated. "It's what made me brush my teeth and go to class," she says. Phengsy only wishes there had been more focus on Laotian history -- much of her coursework was centered on Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, she says.

The SEAS major also requires students to examine areas outside the region. Phengsy chose to focus on Asian American studies, and says she really enjoyed the electives, three courses she could choose from any of the emphases, because they gave her a chance "to learn something else." In retrospect, Phengsy thinks she might have pursued a second major in World Arts and Culture if she had planned it earlier in her college career. She is particularly drawn to the arts of Southeast Asia -- the dancing, rituals and films -- and spent much of her free time at culture shows and exhibitions. Or perhaps, she says thinking aloud, she would have doubled majored in International Development Studies, another interdisciplinary program that focuses on the broader developing world.

Learning was never the only thing Phengsy did as an undergrad. She worked her way through school, spending 20 hours a week as a clerk in a UCLA clinic and studying at night. As classes got harder, her daily schedule got harder as well, she says, sometimes leaving her exhausted. Her road to UCLA was not an easy one either -- she is the first in her family to graduate from college and her parents, initially, did not want her to leave their Fresno, California home for school. But Phengsy, in her adamant way, decided she would pursue an education here regardless and eventually her parents grew to be supportive of her goals. "I've always been rebellious," Phengsy says. "In a good way," she adds.

Her SEAS counselor, Cham, says that Phengsy is a driven person. "If she chooses to stick to Southeast Asia, she'll go far and make a mark in the field," says Cham.

For her part, Phengsy is not sure what she wants to do now that she's graduated, but she is looking for a job admittedly unrelated to her major. She is not interested in academia or research -- "Maybe when I'm old," she says -- and does not think there is much demand for Southeast Asianists anyway. "I don't know much about what I can do with [my SEAS degree]," Phengsy says. As a child she wanted to write children's books and later wanted to become a psychologist. "Maybe I'll want to be a doctor tomorrow," she says only half-jokingly. "I like how things aren't set for me -- it's really spontaneous."

A Southeast Asia Love Affair

Yuko Takahashi has traveled a lot in her life. Her grandmother loved traveling and took her all over the world. But when she graduated from high school she struck out on her own for the first time. With a friend and a backpack, Takahashi set out from her home in Tokyo and found much more than she had expected.

"I can still remember it. It was like time stopped," she remembers. In Ayuthaya, a historical city in Thailand that is known for its art and architecture, Takahashi found her piece of heaven. It was the capital of Siam for centuries until the region was occupied by Burma in the mid-1700s. The city is located at the juncture of two rivers and the remnants of temples and exquisite sculptures are still scattered throughout.

Takahashi fell in love. She had learned about China and Korea in her Tokyo high school, but not as much about Thailand. "I love Thailand. I love the people, I love the arts," she says.

Takahashi had always wanted to go abroad for college, perhaps to England. But Europe was too expensive, so in 2000 she came to Los Angeles and enrolled at Santa Monica College. In 2003, Takahashi transferred to UCLA thinking about pursuing a degree in psychology. But when she learned about the SEAS program, she said "Why not?" And of course she chose Thai as her language to learn.

English is Takahashi's second language so at the beginning of her UCLA studies it was really hard for her get through all the reading and writing assignments, especially in her history classes. She had never liked to read, even in Japanese, so school was a struggle early on. But she got better and better and now appreciates the skills she picked up. Takahashi, whose first love is art, says, "It's amazing I chose something I'm not good at. I'm really proud of what I've been through, especially this [spring] quarter -- it was really hard," Takahashi says.

The SEAS major helped increase her reading speed and ability. In her senior seminar, for example, Takahashi read one book and wrote one paper each week. These tasks, while intense, helped her learn to critically analyze and communicate her ideas. "Now I love to read in English and Japanese," she says, and this has opened a whole world of interests.

Takahashi's UCLA experience, in addition to her regional focus, has given her a broad education. "America has so much diversity," says Takahashi. "I think I see people differently now. I see more about their backgrounds." The upper division course in Southeast Asian history, which Takahashi took with Professor Geoffrey Robinson, gave her the opportunity to learn about many parts of the region, places she had never known much about such as Laos, Cambodia, and East Timor. And because of colonialism and trade, "If you know Southeast Asia, you have to know Europe as well," she says.

Still, Takahashi misses her friends and parents in Japan. Many of her Japanese friends who studied here are going back home, but Takahashi is in no rush to return. She likes the U.S. because it is "more relaxed." It was a difficult adjustment at first because Japan, she says, is a more passive place. Here she feels you have to be demanding to survive. "You have to know what you want, or you don't get it. I'm not passive anymore," Takahashi says.

She is looking for a job but does not want to limit herself to Southeast Asia. From her SEAS major Takahashi says her outlook has changed. They way she presents herself and her ideas "can be used in any job," she says. She is toying with the idea of going back to school in a few years to study something broader, like international relations or developing countries in general.

Takahashi's travel bug is still strong though. While Thailand still attracts her, other parts of Southeast Asia have piqued Takahashi's interest. Professor George Dutton's Vietnamese history class enchanted her. "Every dimension of Vietnam, he gave us. Now I want to go to Vietnam," she laughs.

Published: Thursday, July 14, 2005