As part of our efforts to document the impact of public humanities initiatives across higher education, we partnered with the East Asia National Resource Center (EANRC) at The George Washington University (GW) to conduct a focus group with undergraduate students participating in its professional development program. Acting on its mandate as a Title VI Center to expand accessibility of East Asian Studies resources to wider audiences, the EANRC has partnered with Spelman College to offer the program to their students. Through the annual program, Spelman students participate in professional development and learning opportunities about East Asia in Washington, D.C. In a typical year, the program involves bringing Spelman undergraduate students and a faculty member to GW for onsite and offsite visits with East Asian studies experts, scholars, and policymakers. Last year, the program was held virtually and consisted of a series of online lectures, workshops, and events throughout fall 2020 and spring 2021.
Three undergraduate students attended the focus group in May 2021, all juniors or seniors majoring in computer science, international studies, and history and environmental science. Throughout the hour-long discussion, the students shared how the program shaped their educational and career plans, deepened their appreciation for and understanding of East Asian studies topics, and translated into their personal relationships. They all spoke about gaining a deeper understanding of the world and their role in it, as well as ways their new perspectives impacted how they interact with their communities. One student told us, “[T]his program is so important. Not just for me, but for my parents and my brother and everyone who I've been able to interact with as a result on a more nuanced level.”
The impact of the professional development program on the students’ career and educational goals was significant, leading students to consider new possibilities. One student explained that through the workshops and asking questions of presenters, they learned about new academic and professional programs in other countries (such as China) and are now interested in entirely new paths that they did not know existed before the program. Another student echoed a similar sentiment about the program’s impact on their career trajectory, noting that they are taking a gap year to solidify their plans: “I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I just didn't know how far I wanted to go. ... So definitely [my] thinking about what field of study has changed, since ... experiencing this professional development and East Asian focus.” The third student discussed how they had assumed that they would go to work after graduating from Spelman, but through the program they learned that “there are fellowships, there are things specifically catered to people who are interested in international studies and tech. ... So now I'm definitely thinking more deeply about going to grad school as opposed to just going and working straight out of graduation. So I really appreciate the program for that.” These responses highlight the power of professional development programs to clarify for students how the humanities prepare them for a variety of careers.
The program also succeeded in giving students a deeper appreciation of East Asian studies topics. For example, all three students discussed enjoying a session about Shakespeare in Asia. The computer science major told us, “I haven't gotten the chance to do any kind of non-STEM stuff in that way, the whole time that I've been at Spelman. … I don't even like Shakespeare like that, but she just made me so interested in it.” The students also talked about the value in learning more about specific areas of East Asia (such as Taiwan) and relationships between East Asian societies and the world (such as between China and Africa, or the U.S. and Taiwan). In describing what they learned from a session on Taiwanese digital citizenship, a student said, “I keep saying [the sessions were] engaging, but it was more than that. It got me thinking so deeply about what I valued and what I found interesting about East Asia, what I really wanted to learn more about.”
Finally, the students shared the tremendous impact the program has had on their personal lives and how they think about social justice work. They all noted how they now hold the information, vocabulary, and understanding to have important conversations about East Asia and Asian Americans with their families, friends, and peers. Those not graduating also stated that they plan to take more courses in East Asian studies during their remaining time at Spelman. The students all shared that the program had made them consider the relationships between African Americans and Asian Americans in new ways, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. One student said that through the program, they “realized how little African Americans know about East Asia and how little East Asians know about African Americans. … What I did in reaction to what I was feeling from the program was I educated a group of K-12 Chinese American students on African American history and African American history month.” Another student discussed how they are writing a senior paper and integrating workshop topics into their work. The third student discussed how the workshops helped them understand more about labor, human, and equal rights in Asian countries and how the U.S. can be a better ally, as well as how individual Americans can help educate their peers in matters of social justice. While the students are using what they learned in different ways, they all pointed to the professional development program as critical to their increased understanding of East Asia, themselves, and their communities.
While we will continue our research on the many impacts of public humanities work, this focus group highlighted the importance of partnerships such as the one between GW and Spelman. The EANRC and similar programs offer opportunities for institutions to expand educational opportunities beyond their own walls. These institutional bridges foster enduring partnerships that bring humanities topics and disciplines to students from many disciplines and backgrounds. We look forward to continuing our impact research partnerships with GW and other institutions engaging in public humanities work across the country.
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