The founder of the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies bucked academic conventions in establishing a school that looked to Asia, rather Europe, 100 years ago. Anand A. Yang, director of the Jackson School, reflects on its legacy and future.

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June is the happiest month for students at the University of Washington.

From its Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, some 200 undergraduate and graduate students are moving on, ready and willing to march down the road to careers as academics, industry executives, nongovernmenal-organization leaders, and government and elected officials.

Their turn will come to join the ranks of such impressive alums as Elizabeth Perry, a Harvard professor, who is one of the leading experts in the world on Chinese politics; Matthew Bannick, who manages the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm; and our very own state attorney general, Rob McKenna.

Many also are in the frontlines of public and foreign policy. As Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire noted at the school’s Centennial Gala this past May:

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“If you go anywhere in the world — to any embassy — you’ll find Jackson School alums.”

The school sprang to life on May 11, 1909, as the department of Oriental History, Literature, and Institutions. The Reverend Herbert H. Gowen founded it, ostensibly to advance the intellectual and public interests of a university, city and state whose fortunes he perceived to be inextricably tied to an emerging Asia. At a time when most American educational institutions had eyes only for Europe, this transplanted Englishman shifted his fledging university’s gaze toward the Pacific.

Not coincidentally, this pioneering internationalizing effort dovetailed perfectly with Seattle’s drive to reinvent itself as a cosmopolitan hub. The Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, held at UW beginning June 1909, made this pitch by proclaiming the city “The Gateway to the Orient.” For both town and gown, that was a very good year — a moment when leaders in the Northwest anticipated the advent of an Asian Century.

Visionary as well was the insistence, from the outset, on understanding other peoples and places by delving into their cultures, societies, religions, economies and politics as well as by learning their languages. Such deep contextual knowledge was deemed essential not only for academic learning but also for policymaking, a lesson still worth remembering.

From its earliest incarnation, the school envisioned educating future generations of global citizens and leaders as its mission. Then, as now, international-affairs education was shovel ready, fully primed to construct the intellectual infrastructure that has always been as vital to a country’s human security as is the building of bridges and highways.

To Gowen’s successors was left the daunting task of assembling a knowledge community in the 1930s and 1940s, when the world was at war and Asia experts were scarce. Fortunately, UW received foreign assistance: Several key hires were from the ranks of scholars fleeing conflict and persecution in China and Europe.

The Asia expertise was put to good use during World War II. Some professors served the war effort by providing culture and language training for military personnel preparing for the occupation of Japan; others helped shape the propaganda campaign against Japan and American foreign policy toward Asia.

UW also stood on the intellectual frontlines in the ensuing Cold War because of its considerable strengths in China and Russian studies in the 1940s and 1950s. This was also when it branched out into the study of other “non-Western” regions, an expansion that reflected the rise of the U.S. as a superpower.

The head start in international studies positioned UW well to capitalize on new funding opportunities. Federal monies trickled into the field in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 authorized stimulus funding to enhance math and science education and, under Title VI of the act, to train students in area and international studies. UW secured a grant right away, and has never looked back since then, winning these highly prestigious awards in bunches in recent decades.

Currently, the Jackson School leads the nation in most Title VI grants. Seven awards recognize the excellence of centers relating to Canada; East Asia; Middle East; Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia; South Asia; Southeast Asia; and Western Europe. The eighth is for Global Studies, which focuses on international issues and problems.

The school also supports first-rate programs in African and Latin American Studies and in Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies. Furthermore, these centers and programs stand out because they draw additional strength from the international coverage provided by outstanding departments in arts, humanities, and social sciences, professional schools such as Business, which houses a Title VI-funded Global Business Center, and newly minted units such as Global Health.

In short, UW is a powerhouse in international studies, richly deserving of its No. 16 ranking among the Top 500 World Universities. Moreover, its intellectual capital perfectly matches the interests and needs of a state whose people are diverse and cosmopolitan, and whose economy, and private and nongovernmental sectors are intensely global.

Now if UW only received the state support it rightly merits as a world-class institution that has taken a very long time to build.

Anand Yang is director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Golub Chair of International Studies, University of Washington. E-mail: aay@u.washington.edu