A Childhood Experience Shaped Her Life's Plan

Barbara Gaerlan, Asst. Director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, went to the Philippines as a child and now works to stimulate interest in and inform others about Southeast Asia.


A three-year stay in the Philippines when she was just a teen completely changed Barbara Gaerlan's life.

Now assistant director of the still-infant UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Gaerlan has made the goals of the center - creating an interdepartmental program, hiring top faculty and expanding Education Abroad Programs - her life's work.

But it was Gaerlan's parents who laid the groundwork for their oldest child's interest in Southeast Asia. In 1961, Gaerlan's father - a union organizer for Boston's Newspaper Guild who had just completed an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature - was appointed to a staff of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to the Philippines.

"We had nine children in our family, so there was some flap as to whether he was needed," Gaerlan recalled. "It was actually debated on the floor of Congress. The Republicans said that it was wasteful to send a guy with nine children, and the Democrats argued back, 'These are going to be nine little ambassadors for the United States of America!' "

Gaerlan laughs at the memory now, but she did become an unofficial ambassador of sorts, staunchly defending the Philippines against the "colonial mentality" of both Americans and Filipinos. She spent all three of her summers volunteering in a Peace Corps camp in the Visayan Islands in the Philippines, along the way learning the Ilonggo and Tagalog languages.

After her family returned to Boston in 1964, Gaerlan jumped into political activism at Newton High School and attended the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She received an A.B. in history from the College of New Rochelle in New York and went back to the Philippines in 1969 with a church-sponsored program.

"The Vietnam War was raging at the time, and the Philippines was in the middle of a big, Marxist-led, anti-Marcos revolution," Gaerlan said. She was assigned to the Muslim section of the Philippines, where she taught for two years. "That was at a time of political upheaval; it was very exciting, and I loved it," she added.

When Gaerlan returned to the United States, she worked in Cambridge as a teaching assistant for an offshoot graduate program of Vermont-based Goddard College. She married Vic Gaerlan, a fellow student, and the couple had a son, but later divorced. As a single parent, Gaerlan worked in administrative positions at several universities - including Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley - and completed her master's degree in education at Harvard in 1991.

It was her interest in international higher education that brought her to UCLA, where she received her Ph.D. in education. Her current job materialized when campus administrators established the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in July 1999.

"The administration has been very generous," said Gaerlan, who hopes to spend spring quarter in the Philippines opening an Education Abroad Program there. "I just feel so lucky to have this job. The center was overdue, but the university is committed to doing it, and they really are doing it right."

This story originally appeared in UCLA Today on Jan. 30, 2001.

Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2001