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University to introduce South Asian studies program

Following pressure from students to increase its course offerings focusing on South Asia, the University plans to add a certificate in South Asian studies to its curriculum as part of a broader push to expand its ethnic studies programs in previously underrepresented regions.

The certificate program, which will fall under the auspices of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), is awaiting final approval by a faculty vote on May 14. PIIRS director Miguel Centeno, however, said the vote will be "just a formality," adding that once the faculty approves the program, it will be offered next fall.


PIIRS became aware of students' desire for a South Asian studies certificate from professors of interested students, who wanted to combine their classes on South Asia into a coherent program, Centeno said.

The new program will offer courses by as many as 10 professors, Centeno said. He added that a new Indian historian will be joining the faculty, along with a religion professor who specializes in Pakistan. Each student pursuing a South Asian studies certificate will have to show proficiency in a South Asian language.

Hindi professor Mekhala Natavar said student lobbying has been a key factor in the University's ongoing expansion of its South Asian offerings. "When I came for my interview I didn't have to give a job talk," she said. "I met with the students."

PIIRS was established in 2003 as an interdisciplinary effort to consolidate preexisting regionally-focused programs. While some of those programs had long histories — the East Asian studies certificate, for example, dates back to 1927 — recent years have seen an increased push for a more international curriculum.

Three years ago, the University responded to lobbying for greater emphasis on South Asia by agreeing to offer Hindi as a four-term sequence, following a two-year campaign by Ravi Shah '06. Previously, the administration believed there wasn't enough student interest or funding to support a course sequence in Hindi.

Natavar said she is now hoping the University will add upper-level classes in Hindi language and literature. In the meantime, Natavar has personally expanded offerings of South Asian languages by informally tutoring students in Urdu.


Centeno said the program will be based on PIIRS' current regional studies certificates and will function independently. "It's under the PIIRS umbrella and PIIRS provides funding, but it's autonomous," Centeno said.

There is no current intention to create a separate department for South Asian studies.

South Asian Student Association co-president Ishna Berry '08 said she was "really in favor" of the new certificate, noting that "South Asian studies aren't really that prominent here."

"I took Hindi my first two years here, and a lot of people weren't satisfied with the number of classes that were being offered," she said. "I'm guessing ... a certificate program will encourage [more classes]."

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The University's Hindi offerings come as only part of a multi-pronged expansion of South Asian studies opportunities. This year also saw the establishment of a Princeton-in-India program, which began as the brainchild of Ritu Kamal '07 and Sanhita Sen '07, who said they intended to fill what they saw as a hole in Princeton's study abroad programs. Sen is also a former associate editor for The Daily Princetonian.

Princeton-in-Asia (PiA) executive director Anastasia Vrachnos said her program — which now encompasses Princeton-in-India — hopes to broaden the University's study abroad opportunities in South Asia even further. "Princeton-in-Asia is building on Ritu and Sanhita's work," she said. "For me, it's a toehold for what we're going to do."

This summer, PiA will send three students to India on fellowships. One will participate in a nongovernmental environmental program, another will do HIV/AIDS charity work and the third will teach at a school. In previous decades, PiA had sent students to India, but it pulled out of the country after the 1970s due to regulatory difficulties.

In sending students to India, PiA is "not filling a hole," but rather taking advantage of "a window of opportunity," Vrachnos said. She added that the program is "reentering India at a time when Princetonians really have something to offer and learn."

"I think what's interesting is how enthusiastic people on campus are," Vrachnos said.

Though PiA is not directly affiliated with the University, the South Asian studies certificate and India fellowships follow the model set by other universities' programs in South Asian studies. Harvard Business School established the India Research Center in Mumbai in 2005 to study the Indian economy, while Yale established the International Ambassadors program in South Asia to encourage international applications.

"It makes international and curricular sense," Centeno said of the new certificate. "The only newsworthy thing [would be] if we didn't offer something."