Curious Cat’s journey to become a Southeast Asia specialist

30 November 2018

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When Catherine Yen was considering her options for university, The Australian National University (ANU) seemed out of reach both geographically and financially.

“Being from a working-class family in Melbourne, I knew it would be expensive to study interstate and I didn’t think going to ANU was possible,” said the Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) (Honours) student, who will graduate in December.

“I was able to receive the Centenary Scholarship, which helped with the relocation cost. I think without that I wouldn’t have been able to come to ANU.”

From Melbourne to Canberra, Catherine is now making her mark as a Southeast Asia specialist. In 2016, she spent a year in Thailand on a New Colombo Scholarship at Thammasat University. She also worked at an independent newspaper, an experience that led her to double down on her Thai language studies at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

“When I was in the newsroom, my Thai was at a very basic level but everyone around me was so kind. I wanted to talk to them so bad to the point I would cry,” she said.

“No matter how hard it is to learn a foreign language with its tones and script, if you have someone in mind who you want to talk to it will really drive you.”

The PhB program at ANU is the only degree of its kind in Australia. Students undertake research projects of their choice with one-on-one mentoring from academics.

For her research thesis, Catherine explored the political surveillance of dissident activities banned under a loosely enforced edict by Thailand’s military government.

“The College sets very high standards for regional engagement. I really appreciate the values many of my lecturers and supervisors instilled in me, such as trying hard to learn a foreign language,” said Catherine, who conducted interviews in Thai for her thesis.

“My research is anthropologically inflected, so I spent a lot of time with people with a lot of emphasis on how to approach research ethically and listening to what people have to say. I think those values will stay with me for a long time,” she said.

In addition to these values, Catherine reflected on how far she has come – personally and academically – over the past five years. From working two jobs throughout her undergraduate studies to conducting research interviews in Thai, her journey has taken her further than she ever imagined.

“If you had told me this what I’d be doing with my life when I came to the ANU five years ago, I would have just laughed at you. Studying and researching human rights was never planned, but I’m really happy with how everything has turned out,” she said.

Although graduation is a time for many students to close the books and celebrate, Catherine is still firmly in research mode; she has applied for a PhD at the Coral Bell School.

“I had a very supportive Honours supervisor who asked me if I wanted to keep doing readings after my thesis was complete. I was, like, ‘yeah!’” she laughed.

“I have so many questions and gaps in my head about Thai politics. There’s still so much to learn.”

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