Building Bridges From Princeton to Asia

By Anne Levin

Photography Courtesy of Princeton in Asia

If a college student is lucky, he or she might be able to spend a semester in a foreign country. Those who have the opportunity to bunk in with a family are even luckier, getting a close-up look at how those in different cultures live, work, and play.

A program based out of a small suite of offices on Princeton’s Nassau Street takes the concept even further. Princeton in Asia, which has been sending young people to Asian countries since 1898, awards fellowships to some 150 people a year, sending them to such far-flung locations as East Timor, Kazakhstan and Myanmar. Settling in for a year or more, they teach, study, and work in fields including education, media, public health, environmental conservation, and international development.

This is immersion taken to a new level. “I formed really strong relationships,” says Alex Jones, who taught seventh grade English for two years in China’s rural Yunan Province after graduating from Hamilton College. He also taught music, introducing his young charges to punk, reggae, and classic rock and alternating singing a Chinese and English song every week. “It was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I think about it every day,” he says. “It was unlike anything I had ever experienced – much more difficult and much more rewarding.”

After returning from China, Jones joined the staff of Princeton in Asia and now works alongside other PiA alumni. “I heard about the program from a friend who had gone on it,” he says. “I fell in love with the culture and the spirit of the organization.”

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While fellows come from 70 universities, the largest contingent comes from Princeton University, where the program was begun by a group of undergraduates who raised $500 to support the YMCA in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China. In 1898, Robert “Pop” Gailey ’96 went to China and started the program, enlisting the help of his classmates. Eight years later, he and Dwight Edwards ’94 established the first YMCA in Peking.

Over the next 30 years, students worked on famine relief programs, organized the country’s first athletic associations, opened the Peking School of Commerce and Finance, and established the Princeton School of Public Affairs at Yenching University in 1923. Later called the Princeton- Yenching Foundation, the program had to temporarily cease operations in China in 1949. It was then that the organization branched out to include other countries in Asia. The China connection was kept alive through the awarding of scholarships to several students from Hong Kong to attend Princeton University. The name “Princeton in Asia” was coined in 1955.

While the program has grown and embraced technological advancements that keep fellows only a text or phone call away from each other, the aims of the organization have remained the same. “The mission has not changed,” says Maggie Dillon, PiA executive director. “We’re here to exchange the best ideals of east and west and to be a meaningful contribution to the community. Humility is a big part of it. It is so important in Asia, and so valuable for people to learn.”

Dillon, who graduated from Princeton in 2006 as a German major, looked into PiA because she wanted to do something different. “I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone,” she recalls. “I was interested in teaching in Singapore, but the executive director at the time said, ‘Try Laos.’ I had played rugby at Princeton so I went to the National Rugby Foundation in Laos, and stayed three years. It totally changed my life.”

Dillon became proficient at speaking Lao, and learned how a national foundation works. At Lao Rugby, she served on the executive committee and traveled all over Asia to Kazakhstan, India, China, Malaysia, Cambodia, and within Laos. “I used the rugby program to promote healthy living, life skills, and academic development within the ethnic minority community,” she said. “It was amazing.”

She came back to Princeton a year and a half ago to take the executive director’s job. While she loves her work, she misses the life she led in Laos. “There is a really amazing sense of community there,” she says. “It doesn’t feel the same here.”

PiA staff travel around the United States interviewing potential candidates for fellowships each year. Victoria Chernova, who comes from Oregon, is among those who were chosen for the program in 2010. A current staff member at PiA , she is a graduate of the University of Southern California. She taught sixth grade language arts in Singapore for a year and a half, and then stayed on for another year teaching current events and writing.

“I had traveled to Hong Kong in college, which made me realize I hadn’t seen much of the world at all,” she says. “I knew I wanted to get back out there and see more. This program, on top of the amazing opportunity it affords for getting to Asia, has a unique vibe, right off the bat. People are funny and clever. It’s just a breath of fresh air.”

An outgrowth of PiA is the 10-year-old Summer of Service program, which was an idea suggested by a Princeton University undergraduate to address the need for better language skills in China. The six-to-seven-week English language immersion camp places students in a remote part of Hunan Province, at a university in Jishou City.

“It has transformed the reputation of that institution,” says Dillon. “It is now seen as a center for English language learning in China. We’re very proud of that.”

Other summer internships are in public health. Among the 15 Princeton University students who took part in the summer of 2013 is Kate Kaneko, now a junior. Kaneko worked in Bangkok, Thailand for the global health organization Population Services International. She wrote a policy report for the company about heroin overdoses in the community, focusing on how to make the drug Naloxone more readily available. “I was there two months,” she said. “It was great. Being in the moment, you don’t realize until you look back just how great it was. I knew no one. I lived alone. It was the first time I learned how to be lonely.”

Having experienced one aspect of PiA, Kaneko says she will probably apply for the full program once she graduates. That doesn’t surprise Dillon. “People have a transformation when they do this program,” she says. “The purpose is not just to go over to study, but to live and work. You’re building relationships. You get a greater understanding of interdependency. And that’s an important lesson. We’re so interdependent, in whatever community we’re in.”

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