South Asia Centers Bring Region to Life Inside U.S.

Students in Philadelphia are often able to enjoy a leisurely day in India, wandering in and out of shops, stopping for a lunch of naan, samosas and curry, catching the latest Bollywood matinee and chatting in Hindi or Urdu throughout a culture-filled day.

Though these students are still in the United States, they participate in a version of an authentic Indian experience through Hindi and Urdu language-education programs hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s South Asia Center, one in a network of national resource centers (NRCs) across the United States that focus on South Asia.

For the last two summers, the university, known as Penn, has welcomed American secondary school students and teachers and immersed them in Hindi and Urdu lessons and the cultures of South Asia. Penn partnered with teachers in India who corresponded via videoconference with the U.S. participants. The courses featured traditional Indian food for lunches, dance instruction to Indian music, field trips to South Asian art collections at Philadelphia art museums and visits to local religious sites, including mosques and temples.

“[We provided] the experience of being in the culture and learning the language,” said Raili Roy, assistant director of the South Asia Center at Penn.

Including Penn there are nine South Asia NRCs in the United States. The others are at Columbia University, University of Chicago, University of Washington, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin–Madison, University of Texas–Austin, University of California–Berkeley and a joint Cornell University–Syracuse University center.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the centers seek to build American expertise in South Asian languages and bolster American universities’ capacities to educate in global cultures and affairs. There are 125 NRCs in total, covering different world regions and languages.

“The overarching goal of an NRC is to be a center of excellence that offers depth of specialized course coverage … and produces graduates with exceptional area or international studies and foreign language expertise and knowledge,” said Cheryl Gibbs, senior program officer at the Department of Education, via e-mail.

The South Asia centers focus on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, covering language instruction in Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Panjabi, Pashto, Persian, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu.


Until 2013, the South Asia NRCs are making it a priority to train American primary and secondary school teachers in the languages and cultures of South Asia. The centers also focus on a variety of other goals, including strengthening international studies and language course offerings at the universities, partnering with other universities and international organizations, hosting conferences on issues relevant to their regions and building specialized libraries.

Several South Asia centers have unique plans for the coming years. To address the teacher-training objective, Columbia University’s South Asia Institute will offer a course for teachers on the history of Pakistan, and it also provides workshops for secondary school and community college instructors of Hindi and Urdu.

At the University of Michigan, the South Asia center, working in collaboration with the university’s other NRCs, is launching a world history initiative, through which university professors will provide presentations on world regions to educate secondary school teachers and encourage innovative lesson planning. The initiative aims to support “the creation, pilot testing, and dissemination of new, high-quality and globally focused curricular units,” Gibbs said.

Other scheduled activities include new course offerings and academic conferences. Several centers plan to introduce Pashto and Marathi language programs while also enhancing scholarship on Pakistan and Afghanistan. In October 2011, Columbia will host a conference on Bangladesh and Pakistan, addressing the two countries’ security, social movements, art, politics and more. Preceding Columbia’s event, Penn will host a conference in April 2011 on health and economic intervention initiatives in India.

“We are bringing in experts from India who are working directly in that field to initiate a conversation between them and experts in the U.S.,” Roy said.


In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, the United States responded by infusing its education infrastructure with not only greater attention to science and technology training, but also a new focus on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which established the NRCs.

The first South Asia centers opened in 1959 at Penn, the University of Chicago and the University of California–Berkeley. The number of South Asia centers gradually increased over the years, and the Education Department has funded between eight and 10 centers in recent years.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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