Nick Kontogeorgopoulos on building connections, expanding study abroad opportunities, alumni success, and more
The mementos that adorn the walls and shelves of Nick Kontogeorgopoulos’ office in McIntyre Hall are emblematic of the ethos that guides his work at Puget Sound. Posters for Asian arts and culture events hosted on campus, a photo of Kontogeorgopoulos with students in Thailand, and keepsakes collected throughout two decades of international research paint a picture of a professor dedicated to experiential learning, cross-cultural exchange, and global studies.
Widely published for his research on the relationship between tourism, environmental sustainability, and personal values, Kontogeorgopoulos has been a professor of international political economy at Puget Sound for 20 years. In July, he added a new title to his portfolio—Director of the Asian Studies Program.
Puget Sound’s Asian Studies Program offers courses in multiple disciplines, including business, history, international political economy, languages and literature, politics and government, religion, and sociology and anthropology. The program offers an interdisciplinary minor in Asian studies, as well as majors and minors in Chinese and Japanese through its subsidiary Asian Languages and Cultures Program. It also produces an annual, grant-funded Southeast Asia Symposium and sponsors numerous study abroad programs.
Led by a 16-member faculty committee representing nine academic departments, the Asian Studies Program is well-known on campus and well-regarded in its field. Kontogeorgopoulos has assumed direction of the program with aspirations to grow its academic offerings, expand study abroad programs, and continue to build partnerships throughout Asia.
Why does it make sense for a Pacific Northwest university to support a robust Asian Studies Program?
We are naturally placed to focus on Asia on this campus for several reasons. First is the connection between the West Coast of America and Asia—both historically for immigration and now for the economic connections. Tacoma has its own particular history, with the expulsion of the local Chinese population in the 1800s, and the nearby internment camps that housed Japanese-American families during World War II. Some of our students were sent to those camps. So, there is this history that makes a good case, and it’s also clear that Asia is going to continue to become more important globally. I think that our students who have a connection to Asia are going to be positioned well for international careers.
With that Tacoma connection in mind, how do Puget Sound Asian studies courses connect with local Asian-American and immigrant communities?
Our Chinese and Japanese programs tie in a lot with the local community. For example, we do a Chinese New Year celebration, a Japanese week with all sorts of activities, and we have students who volunteer at the Tacoma Moon Festival. We have some faculty members, and even some students, who are involved with the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation. We do field trips to a Japanese shrine with one of our classes. We are also going to help host members of Tacoma’s Vietnamese community on campus in February for a Vietnamese New Year celebration.
The Pacific Rim Study Abroad Program is an experience that draws many students to Puget Sound. How would you describe that program, and where is it currently in its cycle?
PacRim is a study abroad program that sends a group of students on a nine-month journey through at least eight Asian nations. It combines academic work, cultural immersion, and experiential education in a really remarkable way. The program is on a three-year cycle, and the last group finished in May 2018. We’re now recruiting for the next trip, and the application deadline is in February. The new PacRim cohort will spend next year doing orientation and prep work and then, in 2020–21, the students will be on the road.
What are some examples of additional study abroad opportunities supported by the Asian Studies Program?
We currently have programs in China, Taiwan, and Japan. We support summer, semester, and yearlong programs. We have many faculty members who lead short-term study abroad programs. I’m teaching a course on Southeast Asia this spring, and then those students are coming with me to Thailand for a month. They’ll do homestays, language instruction, and research activities with local students.
What sorts of careers do Asian studies students often pursue following graduation?
Clearly, our coursework helps prepare students to live and work in Asia. We have a lot of students who go on to teach or work in business in Asia. Lots of our graduates work domestically or abroad with companies that have a need for Asian expertise and have connections to Asia. Asian studies is also a great field for students who plan to pursue careers for which cultural competency is an important strength. A key thing is that virtually all of our students, including our Japanese and Chinese majors, are also majoring or minoring in something else that they plan to pair with their Asian studies coursework, be it business, economics, communications, etc. We find that those individualized pairings serve our graduates quite wonderfully throughout their careers.
How do you see the Asian Studies Program growing in the months and years to come?
We’re currently hiring for an exciting new position, The Suzanne Wilson Barnett Chair of Contemporary China Studies. This individual will be a social scientist who does work on China, and who is able to enhance our China course offerings, as well as our social science offerings throughout Asian studies. As for the next few years, when we do our next curriculum review, we’ll be exploring the feasibility of adding an Asian studies major and what that could look like. We plan to enhance the South and Southeast Asia components of the program. We don’t have nearly enough course offerings that focus on South Asia especially. We’re also hoping to expand our study abroad opportunities, both the short-term, faculty-led programs, as well as the semesterlong programs. We want to enable more students to study abroad and to do so in different ways.