Senior Jasmine Mundo began studying Japanese in high school and has a passion for cultural studies and exchange. Among her many experiences at UCLA, she volunteered for the UCLA Dashew Center's Global Siblings program for two years. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Friday, June 9, 2023Peggy McInerny

International Institute senior Jasmine Mundo graduates this June with plans to study in Japan.

“We are reading so many Asian political scientists and thinkers whom I had never learned about before. I feel like we have such a Eurocentric focus at school, so being taken out of that box and put on the opposite side of the world has been amazing.”

By Peggy McInerny

UCLA International Institute, June 9, 2023 — Jasmine Mundo began learning Japanese in ninth grade at Fountain Valley High School (California), where she completed four years of study. When the friendly, enthusiastic Bruin senior graduates from UCLA later this month with a B.A. in Asian studies, she will have completed an educational journey that started with Japanese, expanded to intra-Asian history and political relations and, finally, to cultural studies.

Mundo became interested in Japan in middle school, where a chapter on pre-modern Japan in a world history textbook piqued her interest. “I opened the chapter and it had a photo with cherry blossoms and temples in Kyoto, and I thought, ‘This is beautiful,’” she reflects.

Equally important, sizeable Vietnamese and Filipino communities in Fountain Valley made Asian culture tangible to her throughout her childhood. “Growing up, all of my friends were Vietnamese. Everybody around me was speaking Vietnamese and eating Vietnamese food. I thought, ‘That looks good,’” she recounts. “I even asked my Mom, ‘Why don’t you pack me lunches like that?’”

Mundo traveled to Japan twice before college as a result of her own hard work: once as part of a Huntington Beach sister city exchange with middle school students from Anjo, Japan, and once as part of a summer high school program in Tokyo (for which she won a Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education scholarship). The two short programs sparked a delight in Japanese culture that Mundo continues to feel to this day.

“When I [attended] the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education program, there were also students from China and Canada there. Being in that international community, with everyone talking about their different experiences of culture shock, made me want to broaden my perspective and get to know more about Asia overall,” she says.

She began her college education at Irvine Valley College, where she took the most advanced Japanese course available in her first semester and completed both an A.A. in global studies and the college honors program. She transferred to UCLA in fall 2021 as a Japanese major, but switched to Asian studies to accommodate her wider interests in Asia as a whole. “My studies have focused not only on Japan, but also Taiwan, South Korea and China,” she explains. “Seeing how these different nations interact with each other [has been] very interesting.”

Her two favorite courses at UCLA have been Asian Foodways Across Borders taught by Jennifer Jung-Kim, a lecturer in the International Institute and the Asian languages and cultures department, and Modern East Asian Political Theory taught by John Branstetter, a lecturer in the political science department.

Asian Foodways was “probably my favorite class ever,” says Mundo. “Professor Jung-Kim was able to show us so many relationships between different countries through food… drawing all these historical, political and economic connections.”

At present in her political theory class, Mundo says, “We are reading so many Asian political scientists and thinkers whom I had never learned about before. I feel like we have such a Eurocentric focus at school, so being taken out of that box and put on the opposite side of the world has been amazing.”

When the cost of a study abroad program in Japan proved daunting, Mundo found another Japanese program in which she could participate — only this time, as a teacher. The Komatsu Summer School, run by Japanese college students, invites English-speaking college students to give a class on a topic of their choice.

In Mundo’s case, her class addressed how bread was introduced in Japan and became popular, especially among the young, before delving into international considerations about the food product. Due to Covid restrictions in Japan, she ended up delivering the course online last summer.

“The class itself was only a week long, but the preparation went on for five months. As the date got closer, we were having weekly Zoom meetings to go over lesson plans,” she says. Every teacher was assigned a teaching assistant (also a Japanese college student), who was in the classroom with the students during the class. And although Mundo taught in English, she held daily office hours every day during which she spoke with the students in Japanese.

At present, the senior is finishing up 10 months of research for a departmental honors thesis on Taiwanese Boba tea (also known as bubble tea or milk tea), beginning with an honors research class last fall and proceeding through a UCLA Undergraduate Research Fellowship and associated workshop in January 2023.

The thesis grew out of a shorter piece she had written for the Asian Foodways course. The longer paper takes a more comprehensive view of the tea and its popularity across Asia (and parts of the U.S.), using world politics and cultural theory to analyze Boba tea as a classic representation of soft power.

“When I was writing [the first] paper, I noticed some articles about the Milk Tea Alliance, but it was finals week and I just didn’t have the time to pursue it. So I decided, ‘I’m going to put a pin in that and come back to it,’ as I realized that Boba was being used as the icon of a democracy movement.”

Mundo’s analysis finds that the Boba tea has achieved its renown due to the efforts of private entrepreneurs, not the government of Taiwan. Yet she concludes a soft power campaign featuring Boba tea by the latter would likely yield positive benefits.

Not only did the senior present her paper at UCLA Undergraduate Research Week in May, she traveled to Stanford Research Conference in April to present it in person, followed by a poster day. The goal behind her long research effort? To have a credible piece of research that she can submit as part of graduate school applications.

The UCLA senior plans to take a gap year before she follows her dream of becoming a university professor. “Most people think I would go for a Ph.D. in East Asian studies, but I’m actually going to apply for programs in cultural studies,” she says. “I feel that my research at UCLA has looked at culture and modern political movements and retraced history. I found so much joy and interest in that, and hope to focus on the Asia region within that kind of interdisciplinary program.”

In the meantime, she has applied for a Japanese MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or Monbukagakusho) Research Student Scholarship, which would allow her to pursue further higher education at a Japanese university. The highly competitive scholarship has an almost year-long application process. Should her application be successful, Mundo would start a master’s degree program in Japan in either April or October 2024.

Her summer plans are closer to fruition and promise a mix of intellectual and cultural fun. In late June, Mundo will work as a teaching assistant for Professor Jung-Kim for a weeklong Model United Nations Summer Institute for high school students. “I just finished the onboarding process and I’m so excited,” she says about the prospect of working with her favorite UCLA professor.

But the greatest excitement of the summer will be the three-week trip to Japan and South Korea that she is planning with friends. Not only will Mundo be able to practice her Japanese (and interpret for her friends) in Japan, she will meet the host parents of her younger sister in South Korea, where the latter just completed a nine-month language immersion program at a South Korean high school. (She will press her sister for basic Korean language training before she leaves!)

If Mundo has already inspired a family member to learn Korean and study abroad, it seems sure she will will do the same and more for future students. Her own life is already a case study of making one’s dreams come true.