This year's Excellence in Service Awards went to an enthusiast about Japanese (and other) cultures and a strong supporter of students working for a better Africa.
Two of the people who bring off multidisciplinary programs and events at UCLA
Conferred at a May 31, 2007, meeting of center directors and staff members, this academic year's UCLA International Institute Excellence in Service Awards went to Mariko Bird, assistant director of the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies (CJS), and Sheila Breeding, center administrator for the African Studies Center (ASC). They received cash bonuses and endured encomia by longtime CJS Director Fred Notehelfer and ASC Director Al Roberts. The honors are part of the Institute's Staff Service Award program.
Honorable mentions, with gift certificates and more tributes, went to Danilo Bonilla, a counselor for the UCLA Education Abroad Program, and two key staffers at the ASC-run journal African Arts, Operations Manager Eva Howard and Executive Editor Leslie Ellen Jones.
Over the years Bird has been a painter and ceramist, a serious student of comparative folklore and mythology, and an enthusiast about culture: music, literature, architecture. If she had two free tickets to anyplace but Japan, she'd see Antoni Gaudí's unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona and the wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.
For 16 years, she's been the mainstay of Japanese studies at UCLA, a resource for graduate students and faculty alike, as Notehelfer pointed out at the meeting.
Prior to joining the forerunner of CJS, Bird the graduate student was steeping herself in Japanese and European tales about outlaw heroes, journeys to the underworld, and the like.
"I started some [dissertation] chapters but started having kids," she says. "I didn't see myself doing both."
In her role coordinating events for CJS, one of several hats, Bird took special pleasure in welcoming novelist Kenzaburo Oe before he won the Nobel Prize in 1994 and the award-winning crime writer Natsuo Kirino just this spring.
She makes a capital "C" with her arms: "I have this many books by her at home."
The students in the Darfur Action Committee at UCLA do all of the work. Maybe Breeding makes some phone calls and some photocopies, and goes to fund-raisers and demonstrations when asked, though weary from the work week. And maybe it's true she can tick off facts about the situation on the ground not only in that western Sudanese province, but also in separate humanitarian crises in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Uganda.
"It's been such a horrific time for people from those areas," she says. "It's a real source of concern for me."
In five years with the ASC and with unfailing modesty, Breeding has facilitated scores of public events about all aspects of Africa, become a one-woman communications hub for Southern Californians interested in the continent, and taken a deep interest in the work of UCLA faculty and graduate students. Among other things. One night she sent me a 1200-word, fact-packed response to a routine media request.
Of the African visitors UCLA has welcomed, one who stood out for Breeding was former Zambian President Kenneth David Kaunda. After an "impassioned" talk on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, he scheduled meetings on the spot with representatives of community groups.
"You don't have that kind of access to former presidents here," laughs Breeding.