Graduating senior finds her scholarly passion in East Asia
Alexis Dale-Huang focused her undergraduate scholarship in East Asia and security studies, garnering both a Boren Scholarship and a Carnegie Junior Fellowship to deepen her engagement with China. Photos by Mike Glier.

Graduating senior finds her scholarly passion in East Asia

Coursework in international relations and East Asian area studies — plus prestigious international scholarships — have led Alexis Dale-Huang around the world and now across the USC graduation stage.
ByLaura Paisley

It was late evening and Alexis Dale-Huang had just arrived in Beijing. After a long day of travel, she was settling in to her dorm room. All she wanted was to take a hot shower, but a towel was nowhere to be found.

Dale-Huang had come to China as a junior for an intensive language program, committed to speaking no English for a month. She knew she needed to deploy her rusty language skills.

“I had to go out and ask someone where I could get a towel, so I had to learn how to say ‘towel’ in Mandarin,” the graduating senior recounted, laughing. “I then went to go find the security guard outside the gates and asked, ‘How do I get to this grocery store?’ But I couldn’t understand him, because his accent was really heavy. That was the moment when I realized, this is going to be a real challenge.”

But she wasn’t deterred. Her enthusiasm for her studies at USC Dornsife — she has a double major in international relations and East Asian area studies with a focus on China — was a great motivation to improve her command of Mandarin.

She had learned some of the language growing up. Her father, who is from Taiwan, and her mother, an American, are both fluent in Mandarin. Her mother especially encouraged Dale-Huang to learn the language and culture, celebrating Chinese holidays in their home in Millbrae, Calif.

Dale-Huang attended a predominately Asian and Asian-American high school, so as a teenager, she had further incentive to learn Chinese: She wanted to understand what her peers were talking about between classes.

By the time she came to USC and chose concentrations in East Asia and security studies, however, she wanted a stronger grasp on the language to help her academically.

Turning an interest into an opportunity

Landscape Right

Dale-Huang was able to do academic programs in Washington, D.C., Singapore and three major cities in China. This fall she begins her post in the nation’s capital as the Carnegie Junior Fellow for China.

Learning about various scholarship opportunities with the help of Professor of International Relations Steven Lamy, Dale-Huang applied to travel to China on a Boren Scholarship. To her surprise, she won the prestigious award. The scholarship, administered by the National Security Education Program, sends undergraduates from the United States overseas to learn languages in regions critical to U.S. security interests.

Per Boren Scholarship guidelines, Dale-Huang spent nine months in China as a junior, with the time divided into three parts. After the intensive language program in Beijing, she attended the semester-long USC Shanghai program followed by another language-intensive session in Kunming that summer.

“I loved [the language programs] because they really emphasized cultural immersion,” she said. “We lived with Chinese roommates, and even had a language pledge where you could not speak English, or else you’d be kicked out of the program.”

Travels with USC Dornsife

Back at USC, Dale-Huang found plenty of other educational travel opportunities. She adored her Maymester international relations course in Singapore, “America’s Pacific Century,” which brought together a group of Singaporean and USC students.

“We traveled around with them to D.C., Singapore and Los Angeles, interviewing scholars and policymakers to get their recommendations on how the U.S. could improve its ‘pivot’ to East Asia policy,” she said, referring to then-President Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy for the region.

She also participated in USC Dornsife’s Washington, D.C., Program, spending a semester in the nation’s capital to study and work in an area tailored to her interest. There she met David Livingston ’10, who was leading one of the courses and encouraged her to apply for the Carnegie Junior Fellows program. In 2010, Livingston was USC’s first student to earn the fellowship. Dale-Huang kept the idea in mind, and as a senior, applied.

Each year the Carnegie Junior Fellows program awards 10 to 12 one-year fellowships to highly qualified candidates. Recipients work as research assistants to senior associates of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Bolstered by her Mandarin skills, Dale-Huang was selected as the sole Carnegie Junior Fellow for China. This fall she will begin her post in Washington, D.C., where she will research Chinese foreign security policy, U.S.-China relations and strategic development for East Asia.

Beefing up her resume on campus

Dale-Huang has been very involved at the USC U.S.-China Institute, working as an office assistant and writing for their magazine US-China Today. She has also worked for the past year and a half as a research assistant for David Kang, professor of international relations, business, and East Asian languages and cultures, who has been working on his MacArthur grant-funded project on East Asian military expenditures.

“I helped him with some of his research and the copy editing for the book, and now it’s going to be published later this year,” she said. “It’s been a very good experience and he’s become a really big mentor of mine.”

Kang said Dale-Huang was a joy to work with.

“I’m not at all surprised by her success because she’s exactly the type of student USC is trying to attract,” he said. “She is so humble and hard-working, and yet has such passion for what she’s doing. I think the world of her and look forward to seeing what she does in the future.”

As graduation nears and Dale-Huang reflects on her college experience, she talks about the importance of having learned to take risks and stay open-minded.

“I’ve always been the type of person that likes having a set schedule and wants to make sure everything stays in line,” she said. “But I think both Dr. Lamy and Dr. Kang have pushed me to not only explore my interests and find what I’m passionate about, but also try new things like going abroad for nine months or participating in all these different programs.”

Pausing for a moment, she added, “They’ve helped me realize how unique the opportunities at USC are. I look forward to taking what I have learned from my time at USC abroad, and applying it to my work in D.C.”