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This article was originally published by UNC Global Affairs’ Rawan Abbasi. You can access the article here

In the 20 years since UNC-Chapel Hill’s relationship with the National University of Singapore (NUS) began, it has grown into a strategic partnership opening new paths for collaboration in Southeast Asian studies. 

To explore new collaborations, Christian Lentz, associate professor in the geography department and adjunct associate professor in the history department, spent the spring 2023 semester at NUS with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs. 

Lentz is the principal investigator of UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Bringing Southeast Asia Home” (BSEAH), a five-year project funded by a $900,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. BSEAH will further position the University as a hub for Southeast Asian studies in the U.S. Southeast. Already, the Carolina Asia Center is the sole U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center on Asia in the region, and UNC-Chapel Hill is the only North Carolina university that offers language instruction for Vietnamese, the state’s sixth most-spoken language. 

According to Lentz, Carolina’s partnership with NUS is a cornerstone of the project. 

“NUS is really a powerhouse in Southeast Asia studies,” he said. “They’ve got the faculty, and they’ve got proximity to the region, which means they can continue to do cutting-edge research on that part of the world. So, we can continue to build on that and hopefully learn with NUS through this relationship to strengthen Southeast Asia studies here at UNC.”  

During Lentz’s spring residency, he also shared his expertise with NUS. An award-winning geographer whose academic focus lies in Southeast Asian politics, societies and environments, Lentz was a visiting senior research fellow at the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI), and he presented some of his research at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a prominent Southeast Asian studies think tank, and at Fulbright University Vietnam.  

NUS provides an excellent vantage point for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty to explore other parts of the region, according to Lentz. He also said the partnership is useful for gaining regional insights on neighboring China, considering the intricate histories that shape the region. 

“If we’re talking about the rise of China, we need to understand perspectives within Asia about China,” said Lentz. “There are lots of interesting and complex histories there, which then gets to another argument, which is the that the United States has a history in Southeast Asia that dates to the Vietnam War. So, understanding that history is key to understanding U.S. relations in that region more broadly and without it, we’re flying blind.” 

This spring, one of Lentz’s main priorities was to strengthen ties with NUS faculty, staff and senior leaders. Continuing visits between UNC-Chapel Hill and NUS faculty is a feature of the BSEAH project.  

“In addition to being one of UNC’s strategic partners, NUS has excellent faculty expertise in the field of Southeast Asian Studies, and its geographic location provides convenient access to the entirety of Southeast Asia,” said Becky Butler, assistant director for Southeast Asia initiatives in the Carolina Asia Center. “Another important feature of the partnership is the unique expertise that UNC-Chapel Hill offers via engagement with Southeast Asian diasporas throughout the American southeast. That complementarity makes for a rich exchange of scholarship.” 

Brenda Yeoh, Raffles Professor of Social Sciences in the NUS department of geography and research leader of the Asian Migration Cluster at ARI, will visit Carolina in September to present two talks. 

BSEAH also aims to expand opportunities for Carolina faculty to explore Southeast Asia and how it connects to their research and teaching.  

This fall Angel Hsu, assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program, will visit NUS to work on several research projects related to climate change and policy. 

In addition, Yun Li, professor in the Department of Biostatistics and the Department of Genetics, will visit to expand collaborations with the PRIMED Consortium. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, PRIMED has affiliations with NUS, and Li’s visit will focus on substantial advancements for cardiometabolic and kidney related diseases in diverse South Asian populations, with the hope to improve clinical practice in the United States. 

As Lentz explained, when faculty members visit institutions like NUS, they gain experiences that not only benefit them and their scholarship, but Carolina students in their classrooms as well. 

For example, Lentz plans to use insights he gained in Southeast Asia to enhance his own teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. In his fall course titled “Society and Environment in Southeast Asia,” Lentz teaches students about generational shifts in Vietnam in the memory of war. While it’s one thing to examine demographic statistics from a textbook, Lentz explained, it’s much more impactful to have real-world context that explains the culture. 

As the University continues to carry out BSEAH, Krista Northup, director of global partnerships in the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, believes the strategic partnership with NUS is key to the project’s success. 

“By joining forces, we create a dynamic platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration that enriches both institutions,” said Northup. “UNC-Chapel Hill gains access to NUS’s exceptional resources, expertise and proximity to Southeast Asia, enhancing our academic programs and research initiatives. Simultaneously, NUS benefits from our faculty’s diverse perspectives and contributions. Together, we strengthen our global impact and cultivate a vibrant intellectual community that transcends borders.” 

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