Treasure of the East

Most students at St. John’s walk past Sun Yat-Sen Hall on their way to class every day and do not give it a second thought. The majority of students have probably never set foot in the building. But if they took a moment to step inside, they would discover the Institute of Asian Studies, one of the most important, thriving programs that the University has to offer.

The Institute of Asian Studies, part of St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, works hard to prepare students to leave the University with a greater knowledge of the cultures and languages that the Asian world has to offer. One of their main goals is to keep the St. John’s community up to date with economic and cultural development in Asia.

“It is a very important part of campus,” said Dr. Bernadette Li, director of the institute. “We want to serve the University by providing the latest knowledge.”

The Institute of Asian Studies has become one of the most valuable programs at the University. This was not always the case. In 2004, the program was on such a decline that the University considered closing the department. That’s when Li stepped up.

Li is recognized around the world as a pioneer in the study of Chinese women’s history. She received her B.A. from National Taiwan University and her Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. She taught at Queens College and Hunter College before coming to St. John’s in 1973.

“I’ve been a student, scholar, and teacher all my life,” said Li, who is also the editor of Chinese Studies in History, a quarterly publication, and founder and president of the Society for the Study of the History of Chinese with an American Education.
When she saw a need for change in the institute, she knew someone had to take over.

“I came out to say ‘let me revitalize,'” she said.
As director for the past two years, Li has made many positive changes in the institute, including a redesign in the curriculum. The programs offered by the Institute of Asian Students at St. John’s give students the opportunities to study the language, cultures, civilizations, international relations, and businesses of East Asia. They are designed to prepare students for jobs in the Asian marketplace, train students to teach the Chinese language and give students valuable knowledge that could assist in career advancement for many types of jobs, including business, education, journalism, and government service.

The institute now offers a diverse curriculum including courses in history, literature, philosophy, religion, society, and politics.

Students have requested that more language courses become available, and can now take classes in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The institute offers certificates in Chinese Language, East Asian cultural studies, and Trade in China, and master’s degrees in East Asian studies and Chinese studies. They are working hard to offer more degrees, such as US/China relations and plan to offer a 15 credit summer seminar in 2007.

The institute has come quite a long way since its inception in 1959. The Institute of Asian Studies was founded by Dr. Paul K.T. Sih. The department began with only two professors and was located in a basement room in St. Albert’s Hall. Sih was dedicated to the integration of Catholicism with Asian cultures, and under his guidance, the department quickly expanded.

In 1973, Sun Yat-Sen Hall was constructed under the supervision of Dr. Sih. The building was the first example of Chinese Palace Style architecture to be built on an American university campus. It signified the coming of age of Asian Studies at St. John’s and remains an important landmark on campus.

In recent years, since Li has taken over, the institute has seen steady improvement in the program and enrollment is up.
“Chinese is becoming the most important language,” said Li, noting that 20 percent of the St. John’s student body are of Asian or Asian American descent. “Young people are looking for jobs and degrees in these areas.”

In 2003, the American College Board announced an Advanced Placement Program for Chinese Language and Culture. Since then, there has been a great demand for teachers and scholars in the areas that the institute covers.

“Asian development is the most important world development,” said Li. “St. John’s cannot afford to ignore it.”