If you spotted CSEAS Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship alumnae Tiffany Lee and Natalie Lampa (’21) in a Tagalog class last year, you might have tried to guess their academic goals. History majors, perhaps? Close. They met in a history course, and became fast friends. Anthropology? Not quite. Tiffany graduated with a double major in Biology, Health, and Society and in Southeast Asian studies, while Natalie doubled in Southeast Asian Studies and  Information Science, specializing in UX Design. Today, in Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, we’re highlighting two Asian American FLAS-fellowship recipients whose work is redefining what we think of as area studies, let alone the study of Southeast Asia. The breadth of their expertise and the ways language study has connected them to culture in many ways epitomizes the vibrant community that programs like the FLAS Fellowship at CSEAS nurtures.

 Our interviews with Natalie and Tiffany last week ran the gamut. It’s not often you find yourself discussing Filipino history, library-building in mountain communities, and public health in the same conversation. Amidst the constant change and resilience required last year of students —particularly students of color—we’ve been delighted to see our Asian students forging ahead to graduate. Tiffany received the FLAS fellowship for two consecutive years, while Natalie applied for her final year—and deftly bagged the prize. But even before FLAS, both alumnae had been nurturing deep ties to Tagalog as a language, and to Filipinx community at U-M.

Tiffany, a proud Hongkonger American from Macomb, MI, found herself wanting to connect with her Filipinx cousins while by-passing the “middleman of English.” Picking up Tagalog (her fourth language after English, Cantonese, and French) felt like a natural choice—a chance to find solidarities with other Asian Americans, even in her own family.

“I wanted to build up that family bond,” she adds. Studying the history of the Philippines with Natalie in Dr. Deirdre de la Cruz’s class, Tiffany saw parallels between struggles in Southeast Asia, her background as a Hongkonger, and the movements tied to her own heritage. “It was encouraging! I could build solidarity with a community I [was] not [directly] a part of.”

 For Natalie, that same introduction to history, paired with formal Tagalog courses for the first time, meant a chance to return to culture, and to shore up connections across her diaspora family. A Filipina American and heritage speaker, she is second generation American and calls Chicago home. She decided to forge her own path out-of-state at U-M in part precisely because it was one of the few schools that offer Tagalog. For her, heritage was very much the draw of learning the language formally.

 “I wanted to learn my history and culture,” Natalie says succinctly. “I grew up hearing the language around me at Filipino parties [in Chicago]. My Dad was supposed to teach us Tagalog.” In the end, the process was more informal, until she decided to take up Filipino as an academic pursuit. Little did she know that her pursuit of a heritage language would be seen as a strength. Natalie mentioned winning the CSEAS First Year Language Scholarship (now called the SE Asian Language Scholarship) to maintain language studies in her underclass years, before snagging the FLAS fellowship in her final year.

In 2018, she recalls, she and her mother returned to the mountainous town of Dasol, Pangasinan, a rural community on the island of Luzon. The Philippines is a multilingual country, but with the gaps among regional languages, Natalie recounts struggling even with Tagalog in communications with relatives: “I felt I was missing out on a part of who I was by not fully understanding the language…I wanted to be able to speak the language when I was there.”

The journey that followed for our students was a long one—both studied Filipino for multiple years. Natalie speaks fondly of studying the language with the late Professor Zeny Fulgencio, and then with Professor Irene Gonzaga.

“Filipino class always felt super welcoming. More of a family than a class I just [went] to every morning,” she says.

Meanwhile Tiffany’s courses in history, language, and public health have influenced her plans in the near future, even as she returns to U-M for grad school in the fall. At some point, when she feels it’s safe for vaccinated Americans to visit without endangering communities with less vaccine access, she’d love to be in the Philippines in person.

“I understand better the indigenous connection to the land [thanks to these courses],” she explains. But believe her, she means it when she says she can’t wait to be immersed in a culture she’s been learning about for four years. For her, Southeast Asian studies and public health aren’t separate endeavors; they inform each other. A lot of the ways in which one conducts studies are the same, after all. A student of public health and an ethnographer both conduct interviews, gather data, etc. “But at what point do you consider your sample size as a reflection of the population? Are there subtleties you’re missing?” Tiffany wonders.

It might be just these subtleties that Tiffany, an Asian American woman in both the social sciences and medical sciences, hopes to balance.

Natalie’s connection to Tagalog courses and to FLAS, though, are also personal. Her mother, born and raised in Pangasinan before fording the Pacific to work as a nurse, has retained close ties to home. She still supports her community financially, particularly to expand access to education for the next generation. Natalie spoke proudly of her mother’s dream to build a library replete with good books in the hill country of Dasol. Some of that dream has percolated down to Natalie. While Natalie is excited to begin work in UX and software development, she also sees reconnecting with the Philippines as an essential part of her identity. She feels the struggles her family members have gone through, and the current struggles they surmount today. Natalie hopes to stay committed to those family ties, on both sides of the Pacific. Doing NGO work in the Philippines and being in both countries to support access to education remain important to her, not antithetical, but integral, to her mission.

Any advice for future FLAS fellowship applicants? Tiffany felt the process was smooth and convenient—not a ton of paperwork was involved in the application process. There’s a flexibility to the application too; in Natalie’s case, she decided to apply not with recommendations from faculty but from two work supervisors who had seen her at her best, worst, and everything in between. Their recommendations pulled through—and Natalie saw her name in an acceptance letter for FLAS not long after. “Don’t sell yourself short!” Natalie tells future applicants. “Apply boldly!”

 It might be this boldness of our Asian American students in CSEAS and FLAS that’s so astounding. As accomplished alumnae, their work promises a commitment to equity and sensitivity as Americans enter fields related to Southeast Asia. They also epitomize the innovative leadership that U-M has come to embody. Traditional language paths are being challenged and reforged. We can’t help but admire Tiffany’s reply when asked why she didn’t pick another European language to study.

“I didn’t want another colonial language any closer to my brain than needed,” she says with a wink. Perhaps it’s precisely this foresight to see the global importance of Southeast Asia that defines us as a center. As for our students and alums, their stars are just rising: much like the communities, disciplines, and heritages they embody.

For more information on upcoming FLAS applications, follow this link!