Alumni Enrichment Opportunity: Ciara Henihan (India '18)
Ambassador Ciara Henihan
Ciara Henihan (India ’18) reflects on her return experience to Asia as a program alumna:
“When I was selected as a Phillips Ambassador in the spring of my freshman year at Carolina, I was a Global Studies major and had had the privilege of traveling to dozens of countries. However, the region I had selected for Global Studies was Western Europe, a part of the world where I held two citizenships and visited frequently to see family, and my travel experience, while potentially impressive on paper, was woefully limited to the same region. My subsequent academic experiences, both in North Carolina and abroad, would slowly reveal to me the limitations of my worldview. The Phillips Ambassador coursework, which began before my departure for India, challenged students to grapple with “Asia” as a social, economic, political, and cultural entity. Three years later, I’m delighted to say I’m still grappling.
After I participated in UNC Summer in India as a Phillips Ambassador, I returned to North Carolina and immediately started planning my next visit to Asia. My six weeks traveling across northern India had been immersive, challenging, enlightening, and rewarding, and it had been punctuated by frequent updates from my fellow ambassadors, who were scattered across Asia, via our forum. Our discussions in GLBL 281 upon our return only solidified the feeling that there was so much I still had to see and learn. With the encouragement of my fellow alumni and the help of the Phillips Alumni Enrichment Fund, I embarked on a semester abroad at the National University of Singapore. While my semester was truncated by the pandemic, I had the opportunity to spend almost two and a half months living in Singapore and to visit nearby Indonesia and Thailand. During this time, I studied Singaporean history, politics, and society. My favorite course was titled “Ethnicity and National Building in Singapore and Malaysia” and explored the historical, social, and political conditions that have shaped the experience of race and ethnicity in Singapore and Malaysia, with special focus on state narratives regarding colonialism and indigeneity and on state policies of meritocracy, multiracialism, and secularization. As a Global Studies major concentrating in International Politics, Nation-States, and Social Movements, this coursework allowed me to apply familiar frameworks in entirely new contexts, draw connections between my host and home countries, and gain a valuable understanding of the society I was living in.
In the time since my departure from Singapore, my knowledge regarding the social, cultural, and political marginalization of Malays has become increasingly important in responsibly consuming news regarding coronavirus in Singapore. In recent weeks, CNN has reported that “the vast majority” of coronavirus cases are migrant workers (mostly Malay), with numbers in the “tens of thousands;” the NY Times estimated that migrant workers accounted for 88% of confirmed cases. These patterns are not random, but rather the result of the living conditions of migrant workers, which are in turn the result of state policy regarding work permits for Malays and perpetuate economic marginalization. My coursework from my semester in Singapore has allowed me to critically examine the news stories being shared and recognize the extent to which this tragedy is linked to state economic policy. It is this kind of understanding of a society and economic system so different from my own, and even the Western European models I was familiar with, that was alien to me when I began my journey as a Phillips Ambassador. Of the many ways this program provides opportunities to its students, one of the most significant in my experience is this: in a world that looks to Asia as “the future,” this program allows students to engage with their host countries through building understanding of the past in the context of the present. The experiences made possible for me by the Phillips Ambassadors Program, both initially in India and as an alumni in Singapore, expanded my worldview far beyond what I could have imagined and impressed upon me that there is always more to learn, more to see, and more to know. I will always be grateful for the passion this program has lit within me to see, understand, and grapple with “Asia” as a social, cultural, economic, and political entity.”