• Gaerlan in her garden 2020

  • Gaerlan at her retirement party in 2017

  • Gaerlan with Juliana Wijaya and Mary Zurbuchen at her retirement party in 2017

  • Gaerlan in 2006

Barbara Gaerlan, Ph.D., assistant director of UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies from 1999 to 2017, reminisces about her work as the center celebrates its 20th anniversary.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

Barbara Gaerlan, Ph.D., still hangs a 1910 photograph on her wall which she got at a 1998 Fowler Museum exhibit on Mindanao and Sulu. The same photograph hung in her office for her entire tenure as assistant director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies — from the center’s founding in 1999 to her retirement in 2017. 

She joined Nguyet Tong, current CSEAS assistant director, in an interview about the early years of the center and what she’s been doing since retirement. 

Tong: What have you been up to, Barbara?

Gaerlan: I have a house for the first time! I perhaps naively joined the homeowner’s association here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and became the editor of our newsletter.

Tong: Barbara, you never stop. You’re still writing newsletters! Let’s start from the beginning. What is your background in Southeast Asian Studies?  

Gaerlan: I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1962, my father joined the Peace Corps staff in the Philippines and took the family with him. I was a freshman in high school then and knew nothing about the Philippines. I studied there for several years and it was very humbling experience. I really learned a lot. I finished college in the U.S. and went back to the Philippines to teach for two years.

When I returned to the U.S. again, I started working in university administration and eventually joined the UC Berkeley Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies in 1984. The two assistant directors were both Southeast Asianists, so we organized quite a bit of Southeast Asian studies programming. 

Around that time, the Henry Luce Foundation wanted to seed Southeast Asian studies at several universities, including UC Berkeley. We received enough financial support from Luce to establish a separate Southeast Asian studies center in 1989, right before I left for graduate school at Harvard.

Tong: How did you come into your role as assistant director of CSEAS at UCLA?

Gaerlan: Well, I loved graduate school so much that I went to UCLA for my Ph.D. in Education from 1991 to 1998. At UCLA, I learned more about Asian American studies and connected with professors such as my advisor, Professor Don Nakanishi, who served as director of the Asian American Studies Center. 

After I graduated in 1998, Professor Geoffrey Robinson initiated a Southeast Asian studies group with Luce Foundation funding. When Professor Anthony Reid arrived at UCLA in 1999, he officially established the UCLA Southeast Asian Studies Center and started hiring several new faculty to teach Southeast Asian studies courses. They offered me the assistant director position based on a recommendation from Professor Michael Salman, who was on my dissertation committee.

Tong: I had a similar trajectory. I received my B.A. in International Development Studies with a Southeast Asian studies minor from UCLA and then went to Cornell for my M.A. in Asian studies. Unlike you, I never wanted to get a Ph.D. After graduate school, I worked for the Cornell East Asia Program under the Einaudi Center for International Studies, but would still read the email newsletters that you sent out. 

When the center announced your retirement and the search for a new assistant director, I decided it was a great opportunity to return to Southeast Asian studies and UCLA. Professor George Dutton, CSEAS director, happens to have been a mentor during my undergraduate studies. 

Gaerlan: It’s a good trajectory. You know what you’re getting into. 

Tong: Tell us about the early years of the center.

Gaerlan: Since the UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies was relatively new, they were actively looking for more grant funding for their programs. When our center was founded in 1999, we were quick to partner with UC Berkeley to submit a consortium application for a Title VI National Resource Center and Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) grant. 

It was a great opportunity because I already knew all of the Southeast Asia faculty and staff working at UC Berkeley. Still, we were very lucky to get those prestigious grants as young centers. With our new federal funding and supported by Professor Reid’s enthusiasm, our center was always a lot of fun. We hosted many conferences and had wonderful visiting faculty and post-doctorate fellows during these early years.

Tong: What was a highlight of your time at the Center?

Gaerlan: I was committed to giving students the opportunity to study abroad because my personal experiences abroad had completely shaped my dedication to Southeast Asian studies. Many heritage students naturally have interest already. For others like me, who are not from that world area or never lived there, going abroad is really important. I was extremely proud of our efforts to expand our study abroad programs. For example, I was the founding director of the UC Education Abroad Program in the Philippines in 2001.

Tong: If you were back in my position, what would you want to see in the next 20 years?

Gaerlan: I hope to see institutionalized programs for bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in Southeast Asian studies at UCLA. For that, you need to have faculty teaching courses on a regular basis so that students can finish in a reasonable amount of time.

Tong: That could mean recruiting talented faculty members in any field who can stand on their own, but also have expertise in Southeast Asia. 

Gaerlan: Right. You also have to recruit graduate students because faculty want to work with smart and thoughtful students. The programs must be built institutionally. 

Tong: Tell us more about what you have been working on since your retirement.

Gaerlan: Santa Fe, New Mexico is quite high above sea level and has a much drier climate than California. With a house and yard now, I’m learning how to keep plants alive in this climate. I’m not really a gardener, but I’m great at pulling weeds!

Also, I serve on the board of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and mostly work on genealogy. I try to encourage Filipino Americans to use the records from the Mormon Family History Centers. There are 80,000 microfilms on the Philippines, including records on baptisms, marriages and deaths that can really help people trace their genealogical roots. Unfortunately, FANHS had to cancel its biennial conference because of the coronavirus. 

You know you’re a recluse when a worldwide pandemic breaks out and your life does not change that much. But the pandemic has caused so much disruption and suffering for millions of people. I do hope that there will be a renewed appreciation for in-person teaching when campus opens up again. Remote learning is really difficult. Some people can thrive, but the majority need face-to-face instruction and interaction.

Tong: Barbara, thank you so much for the work you’ve done and for sharing your thoughts with me.



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Published: Monday, June 8, 2020