As the new dean of American University’s School of International Service, Christine BN Chin’s leadership position is not just professionally satisfying. It’s a personal milestone and a sign that she’s come full circle. She earned her PhD at SIS in the 1990s, and now she wants to elevate her beloved institution to even greater heights.
“The job has been challenging, but it’s been exhilarating at the same time. And I think that comes with the pride of leading one’s alma mater,” says Chin, who had served in an interim capacity since August 2017. “As a doctoral graduate and faculty member, I’ve already seen how this school has moved and grown.”
Chin was chosen for this position after AU conducted a national search. In a recent interview, she discussed her upbringing, academic career, and dreams for SIS in the 21st century.
To imagine where SIS is headed, Chin ponders where it has been. That means contemplating SIS’s founding, when President Dwight Eisenhower attended its groundbreaking ceremony in 1957. Despite his cachet as World War II hero and five-star military general, Eisenhower encouraged SIS students to “wage peace” in the world.
“Waging peace had to do with diplomacy, and understanding how people are born into, and operate from, different cultural perspectives. So one of the major courses offered when SIS first became a school was human behavior,” Chin explains.
Sixty years later, SIS remains a “human-centered” institution with a peace-building DNA. Now, she notes, the faculty roster, student population, and alumni network are all much larger, giving SIS more human capital to solve problems.
“We are very much focused on addressing the big challenges of our era: environment, security, inequality, diplomacy, intercultural communication, peace and conflict resolution, international economics, and global/local development,” she says.
She also stresses that this is the School of International Service, and she’s hoping to expand SIS’s reach. “My vision for the school is that we should have a global presence and footprint, because the issues we deal with recognize—but also don’t recognize—borders,” Chin says.
Chin has grappled with the idea of “borders” throughout her life. She’s a respected, widely published scholar on transnational migration and political economy. And she’s lived on several continents and experienced globalization firsthand.
Part of an ethnic Chinese family, Chin was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At an early age, she was sent to an all-girls boarding school in the idyllic English countryside. Chin and her friends knew little about US colleges, so they utilized a Princeton Review book and applied to the Ivy League and “Seven Sisters” schools. Acceptances rolled in, but with continued uncertainty, they let fate decide and put their college options into a hat. She picked Wellesley.
After receiving an invitation to visit, Chin was immediately taken with Wellesley and its ice skating pond. “When I got on campus, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is like a country club. It’s like freedom!’” she recalls with a laugh. She self-designed her major around East Asian studies—including language, philosophy, politics, and economics—with a nod toward understanding her Chinese family heritage. She applied for graduate schools in East Asian politics, with one exception. For University of California, Berkeley, she examined a program on Southeast Asia.
“At the end of the day, I was born in Malaysia, a part of Southeast Asia. So this was a journey of coming to terms with my identity,” she explains.
At Berkeley, she took Southeast Asia-centered courses in literature, linguistics, and development economics. Yet, after earning her master’s degree there, she still couldn’t envision a career path in this area. Leaving California with an “all-but-PhD,” she headed to Washington, DC.
One day, while browsing through Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Dupont Circle, she met the program director for doctoral studies at SIS. After some discussions, he convinced her to enroll at AU. She earned her PhD here in 1995, started teaching full-time, and eventually took a tenure-line position.
The late Provost Robert Griffith hired and mentored Chin. “He used to say that I could be a really good scholar-teacher, and eventually build a career in administration. And I said, ‘Oh god, you must be joking,’” she remembers. “But, for me, getting to serve as an SIS program director and now dean, I owe to his mentorship.”
Research Passions and Asking Questions
At AU, Chin won the 2010 Outstanding Teaching in a Full-Time Appointment Award. Her most recent book, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, examines the relationship between transnational migration and sex industries. She’s also the author of In Service and Servitude: Foreign Female Domestic Workers and the Malaysian “Modernity” Project and Cruising in the Global Economy: Profits, Pleasure and Work at Sea.
Her research revolves around a simple question, with numerous complicated answers: Why are people, especially women, willing to travel thousands of miles, leaving their families and countries behind, in search of work?
“Migrants are responding to conditions and circumstances in their lives. It’s not just the economic conditions, but the way different states negotiate and distribute resources,” she explains. “And I factor in the cultural and identity dimensions. You can’t understand how groups of people see and interact with the world unless you take into account the dominant cultures into which they’re socialized.”
Swimming with Sharks
When Chin has time away from work, she goes deep sea diving. In her SIS office, she has pictures of herself literally swimming with sharks. And despite that obvious joke—is working in academia a metaphor for shark-infested waters?—she notes her appreciation for SIS and AU.
“I’ve led a really, really blessed life. I’ve gotten my degrees, and I ended up doing work that I really want to do,” she says. “And I write books not for career advancement, but because I have something important to say.”
After becoming interim dean, she was initially reluctant to take the next step and officially lead the school. Nowadays, she thinks it’s the right choice at the right time.
“I think it’s coming to terms with where I am in this particular phase in my life,” she says. “It’s about how I may be of service moving forward.”