Professors' Road to Occidental

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This school year, Occidental welcomed many new faculty members to campus, but two stand out from the rest for their particularly fascinating life stories. Born into immigrant families, Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) professor professor Sophal Ear and History professor Jane Hong both bring unique perspectives to the classroom and their students.

Sophal Ear

Professor Sophal Ear was born into the Cambodian Genocide of 1975–1979, during which 1.7 million people lost their lives to the communist Khmer Rouge regime. After losing his father and brother to the genocide, Ear’s mother tried to escape with one-year-old Ear and his siblings. Under the oppressive regime, they were only able to escape to neighboring Vietnam after convincing authorities that they were Vietnamese. Ear’s family spent two years in Vietnam and seven in France as refugees, finally arriving in the United States when Ear was ten years old.

This year, the Diplomacy and World Affairs department hired Ear on tenure track. He currently teaches International Political Economy and International Development (DWA 220 and 221).

According to department chair Laura Hebert, there were many reasons why Ear seemed like an excellent addition to the Occidental community.

“He is an internationally recognized scholar with expertise in both political economy and non-traditional security threats” Hebert said. “His addition to the faculty enables us to complement the work of professor Sanjeev Khagram, the Young Chair in Global Political Economy, while also filling a curricular gap in international security.”

Khagram is equally excited about having Ear as a colleague.

“Professor Ear is a fantastic teacher, an excellent scholar, and brings a world of practical experience, having worked at the United Nations Development Program and World Bank prior to his academic career,” Khagram said via email.

According to Hebert, Ear has both local and international connections that will benefit Occidental students in field research and internship opportunities. She hopes that his ties to the Cambodian population in the Los Angeles allow Occidental to build new partnerships in the surrounding area.

“It was clear to DWA that Professor Ear shares our deep commitment to the teaching and mentoring of students,” Hebert said. “We are thrilled he decided to join our faculty.”

Ear has dedicated much of his career to international issues in an attempt to help prevent more of the tragedies like those in his past. He considers it his personal mission to help open his students’ eyes to the realities of international conflict.

“How can the world basically do nothing [about the Cambodian genocide], when almost two million people died?” Ear said. “Nobody did anything for almost four years.”

According to Ear, politics often impede the United States from intervening in international human rights violations.

“We talk about ‘never again’ with the Holocaust and Darfur and so on, but it keeps happening. Too often, politics comes in and we ask: What’s the geopolitical interest in risking our [people] in a situation where people are killing each other?'” Ear said.

In his 2009 TED talk, “Escaping the Khmer Rouge”, Ear discusses his family’s escape from Cambodia when he was young. He tells his story in further detail in his award-winning documentary, “The End/Beginning: Cambodia,” which he wrote and narrated about his family’s journey to the United States from Cambodia. The film, which was broadcast throughout Asia, was made after his mother’s death and used audio recordings from interviews he conducted with her.

“The script for the documentary follows the eulogy I delivered at her funeral — a letter to her grandchildren about what she did to make their lives possible. We kind of brought her back to life,” Ear said.

Ear hopes for Cambodia to someday be completely free of war and terror.

“I want to help Cambodia, and ideally promote better development that will prevent war,” Ear said. “I think that’s the goal of the UN and the World Bank—to see a world that’s more peaceful and more prosperous.”

Ear was recently appointed a visiting scholar at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) for a week starting Oct. 11. He also won a Fulbright Specialist assignment with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for two weeks in December. He will be lecturing at both NYUAD and CICP; building ties with partners and institutions.

Although he loves his job as a professor, Ear did not always plan on being an academic.

“I had wanted to end up working again for international development agencies, and to be an international bureaucrat, except that suddenly the option of being an academic opened up,” Ear said. “I thought, what would happen if I chose this path that I never considered?”

After receiving his Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley in 2006, Ear earned his postdoctorate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, which U.S. News and World Report has consistently ranked as the number one public affairs program in the country.

“I was teaching international development there, which is the same thing I’m teaching here,” Ear said. “The students that I have now are actually getting updated versions of exactly the same content that graduate students in the top program in public affairs are getting.”

After finishing his postdoctorate degree at the Maxwell School, Ear taught for seven years at the Naval Postgraduate School as an assistant professor of national security affairs. This is Ear’s first time teaching undergraduates.

“I’m so thrilled and happy to be here. My colleagues are collegial, the students stupendous, the facilities fantastic. I’m in love,” Ear said.

Malaika Caldwell (sophomore), a student of Ear’s, appreciates the international experience he brings to the classroom.

“Development work is something that I have a huge interest in, and it is so clear that Professor Ear has a huge depth of knowledge in this area,” Caldwell said.

“He has had so many real world experiences in this field which he brings back to the classroom. Professor Ear creates an atmosphere in his classroom where everything we embark on feels very relevant to the real world.”

Outside of school, Ear says his life revolves around being a father. He has three young children, and another on the way. He is also on the board of several organizations, including the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Partners for Development, the Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program, the Southeast Asia Development Program and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

Jane Hong

History professor Jane Hong’s passion for U.S. foreign policy, race relations and immigration stems in part from her personal experience growing up in a Korean immigrant family. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and opened a business in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. She was hired by the history department this year, and currently teaches 20th-century American History.

“I’m really familiar with the immigrant’s story through my parents’ experience. I think that [their] experience is what motivated my early interest in immigration history.” Hong said.

Hong studies Asian immigration in the 1940s–1960s period, which is the generation right before that of her parents.

“I’m interested in the ways that race has shaped U.S. immigration policy, and the ways that U.S. interests in Asia and U.S. military intervention in crises like the Korean War and the Vietnam War shaped migrations from Asia to the United States,” Hong said.

Hong attended Yale University as an undergraduate. She enjoyed her U.S. history classes the most, particularly ones that focused on American race relations, immigration and U.S. foreign policy. Her senior thesis discussed Korean Americans’ campaigns for immigration and naturalization rights during World War II.

Encouraged by her professors at Yale, Hong decided to pursue a Ph.D in history. She attended graduate school at Brown and Harvard and spent time abroad doing archival research for her dissertation in Delhi and Seoul.

“[International research] is what gives you a more complete view of American history and what America was doing,” Hong said. “The U.S. has been involved in so many places around the world, especially the [post-WWII] period that I study in Asia.”

Hong believes that in order to understand American involvement in international wars, researchers not only have to talk to Americans and U.S. military personal, but also hear the voices of others outside of the U.S.

Hong spent time doing research at Indian National Archives and the Nehru Memorial Library in India and followed Indian activists who were involved in lobbying U.S. Congress and the Indian government during the 1940s. Her dissertation covers the effort by people across the United States and Asia to repeal Asian exclusion laws, give Asian countries immigration quotas and allow Asian immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

[Research] can really feel very much like an adventure,” Hong said.

Fellow history Professor Maryanne Horowitz, Hong’s colleague, is excited about the international perspective Hong brings to Occidental’s history department.

“The history department is so very pleased that professor Jane Hong is here now, combining the skills of an American historian with those of an international historian.” Horowitz said. “She will help empower students interested in politics, economics, and social movements.”

Aidan Holliday (first-year), a student of Hong’s, has already found Hong’s international experience to be helpful in understanding the importance of history.

“I love that she can relate what we learn in class to the real world,” Holliday said.

Holliday also appreciates that Hong has personal ties to some of the material she teaches in class.

“It makes the material so much more interesting,” Holliday said.

After her international work in graduate school, Hong spent two years working for the Teach for America program, a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who teach in urban and rural public schools that lack resources. Hong taught sixth- and seventh-grade social studies at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Newark, N.J.

“The disparities between rich and poor school districts in New Jersey was just so stark,” Hong said. “I grew up with a very clear sense of what inequality looked like, and I think that’s why I wanted to spend some time in public service after college.”

After her experience with Teach for America, Hong taught history for one year at Seton Hall University in northern New Jersey. Her decision to move to Los Angeles was driven by her love for California.

“[Los Angeles is] a really great city, and there are a lot of great scholars out here,” Hong said.

So far, teaching at Occidental has been a positive experience for Hong.

“The students [at Occidental] have a lot of intellectual curiosity,” Hong said. “I’ll have conversations after class with students about the material, and some will bring in references to other reading and other things they’ve learned. Those conversations reflect an inherent, keen interest in the world.”