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BYU Named a National Resource Center for Asian and Latin American Studies

A Bolivian dance group performs in front of the Kennedy Center in 2018.

The Kennedy Center is pleased to announce that Brigham Young University, in conjunction with the University of Utah, has been named a National Resource Center (NRC) for Latin American and Asian Studies, providing the two schools with $7 million in funding. This grant, administered by the US Department of Education, provides funding to help institutions establish themselves as national centers of excellence when it comes to language and area studies for specific regions of the world. The grants are given for four years at a time and schools must reapply when their grant is up; this marks the fourth time that BYU and the University of Utah have been named an NRC for Asia and the third time for Latin America.

A Partnership between Schools

The work of applying for and administering these grants at BYU has been done by Jeff Shumway, coordinator of the Kennedy Center’s Latin American Studies program; Eric Hyer, who was, until his retirement this summer, coordinator of the Kennedy Center’s Asian Studies program; and James Mayo, scholarships coordinator at the Kennedy Center. Similar work is done by their counterparts at the University of Utah, with whom BYU has formed two consortiums for the purpose of applying for these grants: the Intermountain Consortium for Latin American Studies and the Intermountain Consortium for Asian and Pacific Studies.

“Consortiums are not the norm for receiving an NRC grant,” says Mayo. “Most universities apply on their own. But we feel that BYU and the University of Utah bolster each other in different ways; we each have strengths, and our strengths work together.” The two schools contribute equally to the grant applications; once the grants have been received, each school administers different aspects while also collaborating and sharing information on their programs as much as possible.

Hyer was part of the decision for the two schools to apply together for the initial Asian Studies NRC grant in 2010. He recalls sitting down with faculty in Asian Studies at the University of Utah and realizing that together, the two schools would have a stronger application. “They have strengths in southeast Asia and we have strengths in northeast Asia, so we really complemented each other. We felt that alone, we might not be able to win an NRC grant, so we explored the idea of doing this together.”

Their idea turned out to be a good one: the two schools put together an excellent proposal and were named an NRC for the first time in 2010, and have successfully renewed the grant three times since then. Four years later, when it came time to renew, the Latin American Studies programs at the two schools, seeing the success of the Asian Studies consortium, formed a consortium of their own; they have received the NRC grant three times since then.

Being a National Resource Center

NRC grants are given for specific regions of the world; a university or consortium can apply for a grant in one or multiple regions. They provide opportunities for students, faculty, and even the surrounding community to increase their engagement with and knowledge of the region of the world that the NRC is for. Funding can go toward providing language classes, hosting conferences at the university, funding faculty travel to outside conferences, improving library collections related to the region, doing community outreach, and bringing guests to campus, including specialists on the region and scholars from the region.

Mayo sees the funding for language courses as one of the great perks of being a National Resource Center. Many BYU students serve missions and learn new languages, but when they return to campus, they may have difficulty continuing their language study if the language is not a common one. “In the time I’ve been here,” he says, “nearly every semester, I’ve seen language courses that are offered specifically because we have this funding. The Center for Language Studies on campus would not be able to offer as many courses in less commonly taught languages if we didn’t have these NRC grants.”

The grant money has made possible courses in less commonly taught languages like Vietnamese, Cebuano, K’iche’, Quechua, and more. It also provides funding toward courses in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

These classes are just a small part of the benefits the NRC grants bring to campus, however. “The whole goal with all this funding,” says Mayo, “is that our campus community can have more in-depth interactions with Latin America and Asia, and our students can have better opportunities to become more engaged with and more knowledgeable about these regions of the world.”

FLAS Scholarships

Most NRCs, including the two Intermountain Consortiums, also receive funding for Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarships, which allow them to award money to students who are interested in studying these areas and the languages spoken there. BYU has been allocated just over $2 million to award to students.

Mayo explains that anyone who receives a FLAS scholarship has to prove that they have a plan for how they’re going to use the language they’re studying in their career. “A lot of scholarships go to students interested in working for the government in areas like national security,” he says, “but we also look highly upon students who are interested in taking these languages out into the community—those who are going into education or medicine or business. The whole goal is not just to help recipients with their careers; it’s to help those that are going to be giving back to their communities in the future, specifically those with ties to Asia and Latin America.”

Hyer adds, “It’s money well spent to develop a cadre of students and professionals in the United States that have area studies expertise. They understand the language, they speak the language at an advanced level, they have intimate knowledge of the culture and the history and the politics of these countries, and wherever they go, whether it be into business, government, intelligence, or other areas, they are able to make a contribution to the United States.”

Worth All the Effort

Applicants for NRC grants have to provide a detailed accounting of the resources and programs they already have in place—courses offered, faculty with connections to the region, materials held at the university library, and so on—along with a detailed proposal outlining what they would do with the grant money to fulfill the purposes of the program.

Putting together these hefty applications requires many hours of work, but it’s all worth it, says Mayo. “It’s hours and hours of work and effort to apply for these grants, but receiving all of this money that directly benefits BYU faculty and students and the campus community at large was completely worth all the sleepless hours.”

Hyer calls the NRC grants a blessing for the university, and Marc Yamada, who replaced Hyer as coordinator of the Asian Studies program when he retired, adds, “By providing generous funding for language teaching, cultural events, research, and program development in Asian and Latin American Studies, this grant will help prepare BYU students to effectively interact with much of the world population when they graduate. It will also solidify BYU’s status as an important center of area studies in the United States.”