The student-faculty research team pose for a picture holding a Roanoke College flag and a South Korea flag

A team of six students and two professors are heading to South Korea in May for a research trip made possible by a national grant. Pictured from left: (second row) Elizabeth Walton '24, Cameron McDonald '24, History Professor Whitney Leeson and Owen Collander '23; (first row) Jake Strohl '25, Lewis Edwards '24, Ashton Howard '24 and John R. Turbyfill Professor of History Stella Xu.

By Roanoke College News

A once-in-a-lifetime trip

Roanoke College has been tapped for a highly competitive national grant that will send six students and two faculty mentors to South Korea for an immersive, three-week research project. 

The grant was announced this month during the campus’s 12th annual Lunar New Year celebration, marking an auspicious start to the Year of the Rabbit for the college community. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” said Ashton Howard ’24, a political science major from Roanoke who’ll be one of the student researchers. “It’ll be my first time overseas so it’s quite a leap for me. But I’m really interested in world cultures and how different religious systems, political systems and international systems work. The chance to see that firsthand is huge.” 

Roanoke was one of just five colleges across North America to win a 2023 grant from the ASIANetwork’s Student-Faculty Fellows Program. The $40,000 award will secure free travel and accommodation for students during the research expedition set to run from May 26 to June 15. 

The student-faculty delegation will be partnering with South Korean universities and churches to tackle a project exploring the modern-day legacy of U.S. missionaries, who over the course of more than a century made Protestant denominations one of the nation’s most practiced faiths. 

The coveted ASIANetwork grant is among only a few national programs that fund undergraduate student research projects abroad, said Stella Xu, Roanoke’s John R. Turbyfill Professor of History and one of the faculty members leading the trip. This is the third ASIANetwork fellowship that Roanoke has won, and the second that is supporting research in South Korea. 

RELATED: Roanoke College delegation leaving for 2018 research trip to South Korea 

RELATED: Essay: Cultural immersion offers research students better understanding of North Korean refugees 

“I’m so excited for our students,” Xu said. “We live in a global society. As a college, we’ve been working hard to build on cultural diversity and opportunities for students to gain new experiences. The chance to get to know another culture in this way, I mean, just imagine what that will offer to them as global citizens.” 

The research work will span surveys, data research and in-person oral history interviews to examine how missionaries are viewed by current generations, how Korean Protestants navigate their faith, and how differences are reconciled between Korean churches and western faith traditions. The team’s findings and experiences abroad will be captured in a six-episode podcast that will be created by the students. 

“I’m really excited to get there and to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible,” said Cameron McDonald ’24, an international relations major from Ohio. “I just hope to learn. To learn from the people there and to see new landscapes. That’s going to be a really wonderful part of it.” 

The research grant was showcased during Roanoke’s on-campus festivities marking Lunar New Year, a major East Asian holiday celebrating family, good fortune and new adventures. The event brought together Maroons from across campus to partake in cultural traditions, games, fellowship and food. It also cast a spotlight on the College’s growing catalog of international opportunities.  

Students heard a video diary from Carolyn Marciniec ’19, who’s now teaching in Tokyo with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), a fellowship she won after her own experience conducting research on Roanoke's 2018 ASIANetwork trip to South Korea. The gathering was also invited to ask questions of Lindsay Twining ’24, who just returned from a semester abroad at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. 

FAST FACT | Over 30 students in the East Asian studies concentration have won national scholarships and fellowships. That includes four Fulbright Scholars, five U.S. State Department’s Gilman Scholarship winners, five Freeman-Asia scholarship winners, three Japan Exchange and Teaching Program teaching fellowships and 16 ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellowships, as of early 2023.

Clockwise from left: Carolyn Marciniec ’19 shared a video diary of her travels in Japan including images from summer street festivals she took part in. Lindsay Twining ’24 shared insights from her recent semester abroad. Professor Stella Xu announced the award of a national research grant.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Twining, a psychology major from Maryland who was inspired to apply for the international program after rooming with an Ewha exchange student at Roanoke last year. 

“I gained so much independence and cultural awareness by being abroad and experiencing daily life in another country,” she said. “I loved the history. I loved discovering new things.” 

Roanoke has a long legacy of international partnerships, including with Korea, where its history stretches back to the 19th century. The College was one of the first in the United States to welcome and graduate Korean students beginning in the 1890s. 

RELATED: Remembering alumnus Kim Kyusik, leader of Korean independence movement, 100 years later 

Connections with partners like ASIANetwork highlight the ongoing efforts to build on that history and cultivate programs that expand students’ understanding of the world and equip them to be leaders in a fast-changing global economy. 

Intensive, hands-on experience like that offered by the upcoming research trip helps students hone skills that will translate to their future careers, Xu said. For her own part, Howard — who was inspired to pursue a concentration in East Asian studies after working as a research fellow with Xu — is eyeing roles in the State Department or other international agencies. McDonald, who’s minoring in two foreign languages, plans to head to law school and hopes to work in immigration advocacy and reform. 

In addition to practical experience, Xu said, international learning profoundly deepens cultural awareness and empathy, strengthening how students relate to the wider world. In talking about their futures, Howard and McDonald spoke of their desire to connect with people of all backgrounds, draw attention to important issues and help lighten burdens for the communities they go on to serve. 

“My aim would be to make any process that I’m involved with as smooth as possible for people and maybe leave their day a little brighter,” McDonald said. “I just hope to spread a little bit of kindness in the world.” 

The Year Of The Rabbit