On October 14, 1960, John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd of 10,000 on the steps of the union at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was 2 a.m., and Kennedy was exhausted from a full day of presidential campaigning. Yet he took the opportunity to tell the gathered crowd about an idea he had for a new type of world diplomacy called the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps – and NIU’s enthusiastic response to it – is responsible for starting the university’s connections to southeast Asia, and its reputation as a world leader in southeast Asian culture, politics and art.
In 1961, NIU successfully negotiated a contract to train Peace Corps volunteers. By 1968, the university had played host to more than 700 Peace Corps trainees headed for Southeast Asian countries, specifically Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines – areas considered critical to continued American security.
Among the faculty who lead this effort were Norman Parmer and J. Patrick White of History; Political Science professors Allen Dionisopoulos, Daniel Wit and Ladd Thomas, as well as Business professor Don Arnold. Together this group provided the foundation for what became one of the nation’s leading centers for Southeast Asian programs.
On March 5, 1963, the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the establishment of NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. In September of that year, Ladd Thomas was named the Center’s first CSEAS coordinator, a position he held until 1971.
While the Center initially concentrated on Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, eventually its faculty interests grew to include other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. At the height of anti-war protests in May 1970, the CSEAS office on the lower level of East Watson Hall was firebombed during a campus riot. There were no injuries and minimal damage.
Over the years, CSEAS attracted millions of dollars in federal grants, and its growing reputation brought dozens of internationally known scholars to DeKalb.
The University Libraries developed extensive holdings of Southeast Asian books, periodicals, art and videos – among the largest such collections in the country. And in 1986, faculty expertise in Burma (now Myanmar) and a large collection of art and artifacts donated by retiring Burma scholars around the country combined to create the Center for Burma Studies.
Today NIU students can explore Southeast Asia with award-winning faculty associates in anthropology, art history, history, languages and cultures, music and political science. They can learn one of five Southeast Asian languages: Burmese, Indonesian, Khmer, Tagalog and Thai, and can earn an undergraduate minor or a graduate certificate. Faculty and student exchanges enrich both educational opportunities and mutual understanding between the U.S. and the 11 countries that are collectively known as Southeast Asia.
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