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James Collins
James Collins

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

September 11, 2008

Scholar returns from Malaysia to take
reins of NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies

DeKalb, Ill. — James Collins spent the last 14 years of his life immersed in another culture, living and working in Malaysia. Now a month removed, he seems to be settling right in at Northern Illinois University.

“Everyone says I'm supposed to be experiencing culture shock,” Collins says. “But I feel just fine.”

In fact, in a real sense, this is a homecoming for the new director of NIU's Center for Southeast Asian Studies. After all, Collins was born on Chicago's South Side, spent his formative years in suburban South Holland and received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1980.

Collins later served as director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii. Since 1995, he has worked as a research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization on the campus of the National University of Malaysia, just 16 miles from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

“I've known about NIU's reputation in Southeast Asia for some time,” Collins says. “In fact, one of the first books I read in graduate school was published by the NIU center, and throughout my career I've kept in touch with NIU faculty. The center has grown quite a bit and has been very successful in increasing its national profile. I hope to build upon that success and grow and learn here as well.

“And it's nice,” he adds, “to be back in Illinois.”

Nationally prominent center

NIU conducted an international search to replace Professor Dwight King, who stepped down as the center's director in June but continues with his regular duties in the Department of Political Science.

The Center for Southeast Asian Studies coordinates an undergraduate minor and a graduate concentration in studies of the diverse sub-region of Asia, consisting of countries north of Australia, south of China and east of India.

At any given time, about 60 NIU undergraduates are working toward a minor in Southeast Asian studies, while another 50 graduate students are specializing in the area of study. In all, more than 2,000 students each year take courses offered in the region's languages, literatures, anthropology, geography, history, religion, music, art history and government.

One of only nine federally designated national resource centers for Southeast Asian studies, NIU's center is a hub of scholarship, boasting nearly 30 faculty associates and affiliates. They are all active researchers who teach substantial Southeast Asian content in their courses. Additionally, the center is known internationally for having developed SEAsite ( www.seasite.niu.edu ), an interactive Web site that offers language and culture training programs in Burmese, Indonesian, Khmer, Lao, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

Wealth of experience

“The Center for Southeast Asian Studies has a long-standing role as one of the leading assets of the College, and I am pleased to welcome a distinguished scholar and administrator as its new director,” says Chris McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“In addition to his accomplishments as a linguist, Dr. Collins brings considerable experience as a center director, conference organizer and author of successful grant proposals,” McCord says. “He brings a wealth of first-hand experience in the region and is also an Illinois native who we're happy to welcome home.”

Collins describes himself as “a bookish guy who's really into fieldwork.”

He has conducted research in such places as Borneo, East Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. While working in Malaysia, he produced nearly one book a year, including a recently published dictionary of a local East Indonesian language known as Asilulu. He speaks Malay, Indonesian and several local East Indonesian languages fluently and can read in Dutch and German.

As a former assistant director and then director of the Southeast Asian studies center at the University of Hawaii, Collins has grant-writing experience and knows the ins and outs of running a national resource center at a public university. But his time spent abroad is perhaps his most valuable asset.

“Most specialists don't have time to spend long periods of time in Southeast Asia. I've just spent 14 years there,” he says. “That's given me a lot of contacts on the ground and also perhaps a different perspective of Southeast Asia. I hope that perspective will help me, in collaboration with my colleagues here, to find ways to bring Southeast Asia scholars and students to NIU and to bring NIU to Southeast Asia.”

Goals for the center

Collins says NIU's center must link locally, nationally and globally. Within the campus community, he will seek to establish new linkages with other NIU centers and disciplines that haven't traditionally been involved in Southeast Asian studies.

“I hope to see the center associates reach out to other units of the university,” he says. “We would like to draw faculty from other areas—perhaps, for example, from the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies—into studying Southeast Asia through the lens of their disciplines.”

Collins also intends to reach out to other universities across Illinois and nationwide. In fact, he's planning a joint seminar for next spring with the University of Chicago on Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe, the latter being a specialty of his alma matter.

“NIU has the only nationally funded center for Southeast Asian studies in the state,” Collins says. “We are Chicago's center for Southeast Asian studies. We should be offering our services to major research universities across the state and in the Midwest, helping them to expand whatever work they are doing in Southeast Asia.”

Other goals for the coming year include attracting more students to the study of Southeast Asia and increasing the level of grant funding for the center.

“We'll be focusing on renewal of the U.S. Department of Education's Title VI National Resource Center grant, which is a major piece of our funding,” Collins says. “We'll also explore other American and overseas funding agencies. No grant is too small.”

Collins is not teaching any classes this semester at NIU, but he continues to work with Malaysian graduate students who are working toward advanced degrees. While in Malaysia, he supervised about 20 master's theses and Ph.D.s. During the spring semester, he will teach a course at NIU on endangered languages.

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