Earlier in 2022, after an extensive call for applications, the University of Washington Libraries awarded Cari Coe, Ph.D., the Southeast Asia Luce Foundation Archives Fellowship and Libraries Trainee appointment. This 2-year professional SE Asia librarianship training program is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation’s $1 million grant titled “Tracing Authoritarianism: Linking Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian-America Through Archives, Language, and Pedagogy” awarded to SEAC in 2020.
The fellowship will lead to a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree at the University of Washington Information School (UW iSchool) and an exciting career development opportunity for a candidate seeking to pursue a career in the administration and development of Southeast Asia library collections. According to UW iSchool, academic librarianships are attached to academic institutions above the secondary level, serving the teaching and research needs of students and staff. These resources serve two complementary purposes: to support the school’s curriculum and to support the research of the university faculty and students.
Cari will work half-time as a Graduate Researcher in one of the country’s premier SE Asia collections while completing her 2-year MLIS degree. Join John Tran (JT) in welcoming Cari (CC) to UW’s SE Asian studies community as she discusses her graduate training and impressive background in academia and entrepreneurship. Below, we also get a glimpse into her visions for the SE Asian collections at UW. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
JT: Welcome, Cari! Based on my understanding of your background, I know that you are no stranger to SE Asian studies. Can you share a little about your journey up to this point?
CC: It’s a long journey; I guess that’s what happens as you get older.
I went to the University of Oregon (UO) as an undergraduate, taking basic Spanish, and befriended some Vietnamese classmates who convinced me to enroll in a beginning Vietnamese class, which I did. And just like that… It opened up this whole world for me: both linguistically, I found it really interesting, and the new social circle because there were a couple of graduate students from Hanoi there at the time teaching Vietnamese.
This got me interested in studying abroad, so in 1997 I was part of the first group of American students to study in Hue, Vietnam, for an extended time since the Vietnam War. We were there for six months mainly around Hue, my Vietnamese got a lot better, and I became obsessed with going back. Within six months, I went back to Hue, where I arranged to teach English for a local teacher’s salary at Hue University of Pedagogy. I recall lining up with everyone at the end of the month to receive my pay.
Afterward, I moved up to Hanoi where I interned at the US Information Service for several months, then transitioned to working for the Institute of International Education and Baker and Mackenzie law firm’s Hanoi office. I was a US education advisor and did proofreading work for the law firm
It did take me five years to graduate from undergraduate studies because I kept going back to Vietnam, but I graduated UO as an anthropology major.
JT: Being able to study and work in SE Asia at such an intellectually formative time of your life seemed to be so critical in developing your interest in the region. How did you then decide to continue onto graduate school work?
CC: In 2000 I started a master’s program at UC San Diego in Pacific International Affairs, which is akin to a business MBA, but with a strong Pacific Rim focus. It was towards the end of this program that I realized I was intellectually interested in continuing my studies, so I entered the UCLA Ph.D. program in political science. I spent six years at UCLA focusing my research on environmental and social policy in Vietnam. I was interested in the political economy of development, how environmental policy gets enacted, and its impact on poor and rural farmers, and civil society in Vietnam.
After graduating from my doctoral studies, I was a postdoc at UC Berkeley’s School of Natural Resources and Environment for a year. Then, I transitioned to being a professor at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR, where I taught in the International Affairs Department for six years.
JT: You eventually transitioned out of academia. How was life outside of academia after having been in it for so long?
CC: I left academia and became a real estate agent where I could be my own boss. Plus it was related to my intellectual interest in property and property rights. I did it for a year in Portland and quickly realized that real estate was really about mentoring and helping people at critical moments in their life. People buy and sell houses when they’re getting married, having children, divorcing, or their parents died, among other events. So it was actually a really cool experience to break out of academia to see that the world actually does exist outside of that realm.
I then decided to transfer my real estate license back to my hometown of Butte, Montana, a historic mining town, where I bought a big, old historic building with two commercial spaces on the ground floor and five apartments on the top floor. I lived in one of those apartments and rented out the others while restoring the building to the extent that I could get enough funding through various grants, which was not very easy. It was here that I learned about writing grants for historic preservation while also working in the Butte public library system for a couple years in addition to doing realty.
This led me to running the Clark Chateau, a historic mansion in Butte, MT that runs as an arts and humanities organization, where I was program director for three and a half years. I was in charge of various kinds of programming in town, which was a really valuable experience because it was a chance to create arts programming in a socio-economically depressed area. We created programming that would attract people from within the community, such as ukulele club and book club, but also I wrote grants for larger projects that would allow artists to come in from outside the area thus bringing culture and art opportunities to Butte. We actually were awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant that I’m really proud of!
It was around this time that I started thinking about getting a degree in library sciences to apply my background in SE Asian studies and desire to continue working in libraries and public outreach. I was already looking to apply to various programs when I saw Judith Henchy, UW Southeast Asian Collections Head Librarian, post a position for training in SE Asian library studies – it was exactly what I wanted to do.
JT: Your background seems to be a perfect fit for the librarianship, not only from a geographical perspective being centered in SE Asia and Vietnam, specifically, but also your experience with grant writing. Funding is always top of mind with academic institutions, how do you see being able to transfer that grant writing experience over to your work at UW Libraries?
CC: One hundred percent! I’ve had a fair bit of grant writing experience from graduate school, but running an arts and humanities organization was where I really got started to write grants for programming, which I think is a main objective of libraries. Especially now, I think there is a movement towards taking special collections like the SE Asian collections at UW and digitizing them to perhaps make them more accessible. Collaborating through that digitization with schools in SE Asia directly is a part of the decolonization focus occurring in the field of SE Asian studies. Materials that were previously in the basement of libraries and not really accessible can be made part of a collaborative inquiry between different people who have an interest in the material. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to write grants for this kind of innovative, interactive programming.
JT: What are your thoughts and plans for the sort of research you will engage with as part of your library sciences work at the UW iSchool?
CC: I am still new to the field of Library Science but I am interested in studying the kinds of interactions that occur between scholars in SE Asia. In particular, I’ve noticed the plethora of research coming out of Vietnam, but of varying levels of quality from what I can tell – with a lot of it being published in open-access journals, which are also of varying quality levels. I am really interested in the impetus for scholarly productivity from Vietnam in these journals. Whether Vietnam is enacting publishing standards, or what are the sorts of pressures these scholars are under to publish since there is a whole business of publishing that is flourishing as a result. I think it’s a fascinating dynamic because there is probably some really good stuff coming out of that, and maybe some not-so-quality stuff, too.
On the programming, librarianship level, I am interested in building a digital humanities collaboration with schools in Vietnam or other places in SE Asia where we can analyze a collection from multiple perspectives. Let’s take, for example, the Bob Jones Indochina Collection. I have the idea of putting the collection in map form and encouraging engagement from those in Vietnam or having a sort of multicultural viewpoint of that material.
All of this would lend itself to a sort of decolonization project. However, I don’t think decolonization of information needs to mean that you just stop engaging if you’re from a western university or background. I think you can veer too far in doing that, further creating differences and polarization; rather it’s best to hear alternative perspectives. I think UW iSchool has its strength, in my opinion, in indigenous knowledge and sovereignty of information with a number of professors who are experts in indigeneity and information. I am trying to use my time in the program to take as many of those classes as I can and get training in this subfield. In fact, next term I am enrolled in a class called Data Sovereignty in an attempt to learn what that means and entails.
JT: Have you thought of how you can leverage your experience with Vietnam to serve SE Asia at large? I ask because I think your position encompasses countries and languages that might not be familiar to you.
CC: I am definitely excited about the opportunity to engage with universities across SE Asia, such as those in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. I have traveled a little bit in SE Asia, but I do want to learn more languages, for example, Khmer. I hope to spread my understanding of SE Asian countries over time by building on my broad training in SE Asia. While at Lewis and Clark, I taught SE Asian politics, among other courses, where I discussed the political histories of all of these different nations so I have a good grounding in them.
JT: On the topic of teaching, you have this wealth of experience! Do you see yourself potentially teaching at UW in addition to your work at UW Libraries?
CC: I would enjoy it! Depending on what I am teaching, I would have to dust off my old lecture notes and update them. But I did enjoy teaching when I taught in the past.
JT: I hope SEAC and departments across campus are jumping on this opportunity. You’re such a big asset to the SE Asian studies community, especially those in the MA program, such as myself. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
CC: Yes, I feel so lucky to be here. Back home, my knowledge of SE Asia is a sort of novelty with few opportunities to use it. Since I’ve been here, I get to read Vietnamese every day and to be on the UW campus where there’s just so much cool intellectual stuff going on, so many international students, in Seattle, such a diverse and interesting city. I am thrilled to be working under Judith, who has a lifetime of experience and is providing real mentorship; it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!