Why I Majored in Asian Studies

Serena Li ’26

Upon first arriving at Pomona, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to major in. It took only one semester for me to choose; after I took History 60: Asian Traditions with Professor Sam Yamashita, I fell completely in love with East Asian history, and the Asian Studies major in general. Asian Studies is a vastly interdisciplinary major, and it allows me to learn about anything I can dream of relating to East Asia–from Buddhist funerary practices, to Chinese culinary history, to East Asian international relations–the possibilities are truly endless! With its flexible major design and breadth of subject matter, Asian Studies is the perfect major for anyone who wants to explore a variety of topics while shaping their own academic trajectory.

Another aspect of Asian Studies that immediately struck me was the immense support provided by the department. I approached Professor Zhiru Ng as a second semester freshman to discuss my interest in her Death, Dying and the Afterlife course, and left her office with a half-written research proposal for a project under Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). That summer, I traveled to Taiwan and embarked on a month-long journey to document and record interviews on life care within Taiwanese Buddhist communities. And a few months later, that same research project was accepted for presentation at the ASIANetwork 2024 Annual Conference! If you had asked me at the beginning of the year what I would be doing that summer, I never would have guessed it would be creating a vibrant oral history project with organizations at the forefront of the Taiwanese humanistic Buddhist movement–and I am grateful for Professor Ng and the Asian Studies department for providing me with such immense support through the entire process.

My classes in Asian Studies span multiple departments, disciplines and majors. From Chinese primary source research to animated seminar discussions, the diversity of learning methods and academic skills that I’ve received through Asian Studies classes have truly been representative of the liberal arts experience. At Pomona College, there are also a plethora of resources outside of the classroom that Asian Studies majors can utilize to succeed. As a second-year student, I lived in Oldenborg’s Chinese language hall, where I was able to practice my Mandarin speaking skills while engaging with a supportive and lively Chinese language community. When doing primary source research in my seminar classes, we were given an extensive introduction to the resources the Claremont Colleges Library and East Asian Library could offer to us. I found camaraderie wherever I went through the many student-led organizations surrounding and celebrating Asian culture– such as the 5C Buddhism and Tea Circle Club. Looking ahead, I plan to further my academic journey as an Asian Studies major by taking advantage of Pomona’s study abroad program based in Taipei, Taiwan.

For every student interested in Asia, I truly believe that there is something that Asian Studies can offer them. From religion and philosophy, to language and literature, to art history and theater; in time periods spanning ancient history to present day and geographies crossing oceans and borders, Asian Studies covers it all. The freedom and flexibility of Asian Studies allows majors to curate an academic pathway that fully encompasses their passions and provides them with a wealth of experience– ultimately cultivating a sense of confidence and preparedness for whatever future endeavors one may choose to pursue.

Wonjai Lee ’25

Before coming to Pomona, I never planned on becoming an Asian Studies major, especially since I was an international student coming from a country in East Asia itself. As cliché as it sounds, it was more that this major found me. Initially, I was just taking a couple East Asian history survey courses, while dabbling in Japanese to fill my foreign language requirement. But like any good Pomona student, I followed where my interests took me, and before I knew it, my daily student life was soon being spent poring over historical texts and language study. Soon enough, I had completely abandoned my original major, and it is now my goal to pursue East Asian studies at the post-graduate level.

The beauty of the Asian Studies major is that you can tailor it to your own interests. Despite its reputation as a “niche” department, Asian Studies majors are incredibly diverse in the regions and academic disciplines that they choose to focus on. History, political science, linguistics, economics…Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, India…the list goes on and on. Personally, I’ve chosen to have a regional focus on Korea and Japan, which reflects my own personal interests. I’m a firm believer that one of the most useful things you can do in college is to learn a new language, which has motivated much of my immersion in learning Japanese. Even as a Korean international student, the decision to major in Asian Studies forced me to confront my own identity as a third-culture kid, eventually even prompting me to take Korean classes at CMC. Granted, I get a lot of questions back home; during my military service, the kid next to me looked at me with a confused expression and asked, “So let me get this straight, you’re a Korean who goes to college in America to study Japanese?” Of course, this was an oversimplified characterization, but I think it’s this inherent complexity that has made my academic journey so meaningful and enriching.

I am currently spending my junior year at the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP), where I am having one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Pomona’s relationship with AKP was one of the reasons I applied to this college in the first place, and so far, it has not disappointed. There is nothing that can quite match living in the cultural capital of Japan, where the traditions of Japanese art and history are headquartered. For me, it’s the best place to find my eventual focus for my senior thesis, which I will be eager to jump on by the time I return to Pomona for my senior year.

Too often, people get the impression that one’s major determines their future. But a good Pomona student will tell you that, regardless of the actual content of the major, one gets what one puts into it. Asian Studies is no exception; it is endlessly applicable to an innumerable variety of careers, in an infinite number of ways. At the end of the day, it really is up to the chosen journey of the student, along with the research paths they choose to take.