East Asian Studies
Brett Dakin ’98
Attorney and Author
I still remember the day—it was my sophomore year, and the deadline for declaring a major was imminent—when I hopped on my bicycle and rode away from campus, away from the library, away from the dining hall, away from all of the chatter. I needed to be by myself, to think. I found a coffee shop in a small shopping mall on the other side of town, took out a piece of paper, and set about making my decision.
I knew I wanted to focus on the history and politics of East Asia; during the first semester of freshman year, while others were slogging through Economics 101, I had taken a tiny seminar with David Howell about Tokugawa Japan. But should I do this within a large department such as history, or major in East Asian studies, one of the smallest departments at Princeton? I carefully listed the pros and cons of each choice, ordered another latté, and agonized for a while, but in the end East Asian studies came out on top.
It was a great decision. In my class, there were about 10 East Asian studies majors, fewer than half the number of faculty in the department. As a result, access to professors was effortless. At the same time, flexible departmental requirements meant that I could use the resources of the entire University to craft my own a course of study. Professor Howell became my junior paper adviser, while Sheldon Garon in the history department advised my senior thesis.
Navigating new environments
My first job out of college was in Laos, working for that country’s tourism ministry as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow. This may seem logically to have followed my East Asian studies experience, but in fact Laos had not come up once during my four years at Princeton. Japanese and Chinese were rarely spoken there, but the intensive language instruction and approach to analyzing other cultures and peoples to which I was exposed at Princeton served me well as I navigated a new environment—and wrote my first book, a memoir of my time in Laos.
After Laos, I went to law school, where I learned that legalese could be as difficult to grasp as Japanese or Chinese! Again, the rigorous analysis and clear, concise writing skills I gained at Princeton were invaluable at law school, where my gaze drifted from East Asia to the former Yugoslavia, taking me to human rights-related positions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and The Hague. Back in the United States, I practiced at a large law firm in New York City for a number of years, and most recently returned to academia to explore legal teaching and writing. Along the way, I have maintained my connections to Asia by serving on the board of directors of Legacies of War, a nonprofit pushing for the removal of unexploded bombs in Laos, and Princeton’s own East Asian Studies Advisory Council.
My career will always be a work in progress. But I have no doubt that majoring in East Asian studies has been key to the successes I have had so far. I did not choose the department because I necessarily wanted to pursue a career focused exclusively on East Asia. What I did want was the chance to delve deeply into a region far away, and to force myself to become familiar with languages and cultures very different from my own.
Given the personal and professional challenges that will almost certainly arise after you leave Princeton, being able to deal with the unfamiliar is an invaluable skill that will serve you well no matter what you do.