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NIU's Center for Southeast Asia Studies celebrates 50 years

DeKALB – It’s not organized crime, but there is a “mafia” of Huskies in the Indonesian government thanks to Northern Illinois University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

For 50 years, NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies has produced ambassadors, university presidents and parliamentarians throughout countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia while also inspiring American students to discover the culture, history and languages of the region.

“We like to joke that we have the NIU mafia in Southeast Asia,” said Clark Neher, who spent 31 years as a professor with the center. “So many of the students who came here have risen to the top of their country.”

Neher, a retired political science professor who started with the center in 1969, was an integral part of elevating the center to the global prominence it now receives as one of only seven national resource centers for Southeast Asia in the country.

The center started as a resource for the country’s first Peace Corps training program for Southeast Asia volunteers at NIU, focusing on teaching languages of the region. Now the program has more than 30 faculty members from a variety of disciplines teaching languages, economics, art, history and culture to students from all backgrounds.

“When you combine a huge library, a very large faculty and more Southeast Asian languages taught than any other university in the country, that is the essence of why our center is renowned,” Neher said.

Director Judy Ledgerwood, an anthropology professor, said the center also focuses on bringing a taste of Southeast Asia to the community, which is why the 50th anniversary celebration is focused on events spotlighting culture, history and current issues of the region.

Events included a political lecture Friday, and an art exhibit and traditional music and dance performance Saturday. The celebration continues at 8 p.m. today at the NIU School of Music with a performance from Malaysian pop star Amirah Ali, an NIU alumna. The event concludes at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Cole Hall with a documentary on a Burma activist.

While federal funding for the center has been cut in half, Ledgerwood said officials aggressively pursue other grants to produce community events and send students abroad to learn first-hand.

“Bringing Southeast Asia to the community is still one of the main goals,” Ledgerwood said. “But we really try to get students out there. It really opens up another world and when they come back, they’re hooked.”

Senior Matt Ropp was hooked after a more than six-week visit to Malaysia in May 2012 that inspired him to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in the country. Ropp said he has another trip to Malaysia planned this summer and said it was the center that gave him the rare opportunities he has discovered.

“It’s the only university in the country that teaches Malay,” Ropp said. “It was absolutely necessary for me to study here.”

After watching the center grow into a global presence in the past 50 years, Neher said he has no doubts another 50 years of success will follow. NIU’s reputation grew internationally to the point it was selected by the Association for Asian Studies to house national Center for Burma Studies, which opened on campus in 1986.

“The administration has a build-on-strength style,” Neher said. “ They want to strengthen what is already strong and the center has fit into that strategy very nicely.”

Ledgerwood said any student can participate in classes offered through the center and suggested the introduction course before pursuing language or higher level classes. The center is located at 520 College View Court.

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