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Graduate Student Spotlight: Jason Pierce, MPA in Public Administration

J. Pierce

"SEAP faculty, students, and staff are knowledgeable in one or several countries, and come together at SEAP Gatty lectures and other outreach events. I’ve already met very kind and interesting people volunteering and attending. Alumni are very supportive as well. Staff and faculty from SEAP and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs connected me with alumni whose experiences and insights informed how I approach my career aspirations."



 Interviewed and Edited by Deborah Membreno, Master's Student in International Development, Cornell Agriculture and Life Science 

DM: What are you studying and what is your area of focus?

JP: I’m a first-year graduate student in the Master’s in Public Administration and Public Policy program in the College of Human Ecology with a concentration in economic policy. My interest and passion lies in studying the political economy of Southeast Asia.

DM: Why did you decide to pursue your graduate studies with the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell?

JP: I applied to Cornell because of its standing in the field of Southeast Asian studies. Other universities with professional administration and policy programs often concentrate their curricula on East Asia. 

DM: Could you tell me a bit about how you first became interested in this area of work?

JP: During a period of homelessness at the age of 16, I was fostered by a family of Cambodian refugees, and ever since, I’ve continued to involve myself with the Southeast Asian community through work and home stays domestically and abroad. I interspersed work at East and Southeast Asian restaurants in Ithaca, Los Angeles, and Seattle with several excursions across mainland Southeast Asia. This included trekking north across Laos atop my Dahon bicycle, where people hosted me along the way. Most recently this included my Thai host mother in Long Beach, who participated in my ordination as a Theravada Buddhist monk in her honor—a goal she had long hoped her son would pursue, but couldn’t due to a busy career. I did this to honor her, expressing the gratitude that my words could never convey.

DM: What have you learned about this region and find valuable to share?

JP: It’s hard to generalize across the region, but I’ve spoken to enough people working across different interests in Southeast Asia to feel safe when I say that an earnest interest in the culture and language of your area of interest will be well received—such positive receptions often motivate my own studies. In terms of internship and professional development, I’ve weighed volunteering in Southeast Asia or DC and NYC. In the field, having a diversity of experience is unparalleled, but given the international makeup and impermanence of the nonprofit community, with people constantly in flux, friendships in DC or NYC end up forming more permanent networks.

DM: How do you hope to connect with SEAP at Cornell?

JP: SEAP faculty, students, and staff are knowledgeable in one or several countries, and come together at SEAP Gatty lectures and other outreach events. I’ve already met very kind and interesting people volunteering and attending. Alumni are very supportive as well. Staff and faculty from SEAP and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs connected me with alumni whose experiences and insights informed how I approach my career aspirations.

DM: What has been your experience as a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellow?

JP: Simply incredible. Cornell is an excellent place to pursue foreign language study. I’ve studied Thai formally at universities in the US and Thailand, and the quality of Thai language instruction here is the best I’ve encountered: teacher-to-student ratios are low and additional help is available beyond classroom hours. I see myself making notable gains. Another benefit at Cornell is the mix of undergraduate and graduate students in the classroom from different departments. For the first time in my academic career, the benefits of peer learning is not just an empty cliché. Input from fellow students, many of them doctoral, really heightens what I learn or desire to learn in a class. Lastly, Cornell sponsors many aspiring Southeast Asianists and distinguished faculty alike to present their research. Just last year, Dr. Thongchai visited from Madison, Wisconsin and a former US ambassador to Myanmar/Burma, Mr. Mitchell, discussed his role leading up to the 2015 election in Myanmar. I feel very fortunate to be here.

DM: What are your plans after graduating and for the future?

JP: Looking back, I know that my interest in global politics and economics first took root during my homestay and restaurant work in Ithaca. Surrounded by culinary delights from Southeast Asia and inspired by the generosity of my hosts, I learned to see the world through others’ eyes, and this spawned within me a desire to reciprocate meaningful change in the lives of marginalized persons in Southeast Asia. This next phase of my life upon graduating from Cornell will focus on bridging academic research and policy to create actionable solutions to problems affecting US and Southeast Asian relations, focusing on Thailand. I plan to go on to work at political and economic risk consultancies with regional teams in Southeast Asia, or pursue a public sector career with the likes of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State. My ambition is to then pursue a PhD in government, specializing in the field of comparative political economy, with my ultimate aspiration to become a policy analyst. 

DM: What advice would you give to a new graduate student?

JP: Become acquainted with SEAP faculty as soon as possible. You needn’t wait until classes begin. Chances are you already identified the department faculty to chair your special thesis committee. Schedule office hours with them. They are extremely inviting. The same holds true for meeting graduate students and staff affiliated with SEAP. They are an invaluable source of information, and I owe much of what I know to them. Socials that SEAP organizes at the start and end of the year are great ways to informally meet students and faculty, especially if you don’t have time to visit campus and correspond one-on-one. For current students, attend the Gatty lectures. Also, the sooner you begin exploring and focusing your thesis topic—and find the necessary funding by familiarizing yourself with the FLAS, Fulbright, and Fulbright-Hayes application processes—the better off you’ll be.

DM: How do you like to spend your time outside of Cornell?

JP: I enjoy reading all I can about this field, even in my free time. But I love the outdoors, so sometimes this means reading by a creek or taking a nap outside in the sun to rest my eyes. Occasionally, a project I’ve left on the back burner screams for my attention, such as building a kotatsu table! I have other indulgences as well: ale and Parmesan fries, or a glass of red wine and toasted focaccia with friends.