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Alumni spotlight: Jackson Herndon (EAS-MA '24)

Graduates of the Master of Arts in East Asian Studies program at Duke are talented individuals who take the research and analytical skills they hone during their time at Duke into academic and professional careers.

A person with glasses in a green shirt and tan jacket holding a diploma cover standing next to a person in academic regalia
Jackson Herndon (EAS-MA '24), left, with Professor Eileen Chow

Today, we are spotlighting a member of the class of 2024, Jackson Herndon. His M.A. thesis, “Utopian Frontiers: Legacies of the Commune in Twentieth Century China,” was the product of diligent effort and rigorous application of historical research methodology. He has been accepted as a PhD student in history at New York University.
Herndon is also the first alumnus of Duke University to be selected for a Blakemore Freeman Fellowship in over 10 years. Dr. Gennifer Weisenfeld, professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, was a 1992 Blakemore Freeman Fellow in Japan. These highly competitive grants are awarded for one academic year (two semesters or three quarters) of advanced level language study in East or Southeast Asia. Eligible languages are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Khmer, Thai, and Vietnamese. Fellowships cover tuition and a stipend for related educational expenses as well as basic living costs and transportation.
We caught up with Jackson Herndon to learn more about his post-graduation plans. The following interview has been lightly edited.
What motivated you to apply for the Blakemore Freeman fellowship?

I was in the middle of applying to PhD programs and had no idea how admissions results would turn out, so I figured that I would try to send out as many applications as possible to fellowships like the Blakemore (I also applied to a similar program at NBR), so that I would have something else to do next year if I didn't end up starting a PhD program. I really didn't want to go back to working for another year! I also have to say, Professor Nicole Barnes, who wrote a recommendation letter for my Blakemore application, immediately notified me about the opportunity, and strongly encouraged me to apply.
How did you feel when you learned you had been selected for the award?

I was incredibly excited to hear I'd been selected for the fellowship. I had little information about how competitive the process was, though I knew it was a long shot. I still had no clear or final information about PhD programs at that point, so it was a huge relief. I have always planned on trying to go back to China or Taiwan for a year, but I didn't want that to be all the way in the third, fourth, or fifth year of my PhD, whenever that might be.
Were you aware that you are the first Duke alum to receive this fellowship in over 10 years?

No! I had no idea. I'm honored.
What are your plans for utilizing the fellowship?

I'm planning on using the Blakemore Freeman fellowship to support a year of further studies at National Taiwan University's ICLP program.
How does the fellowship fit in with your overall academic and career goals?

My Chinese language studies have always been a bit disjointed, as I started quite late in my undergrad years. I went straight from three semesters of undergrad Chinese to living in Beijing for a year, to working in a Chinese restaurant back in the US, to taking classes again at Duke, and then another (summer) semester at NTU's ICLP program last year. I've improved significantly during this period—I've done a lot of self-studying, too—​but​​ there are funny gaps in my knowledge. I know a lot of internet slang, casual speech; I've recently spent a lot of time reading more literary, historical sorts of texts. A year [at NTU] will help me fill in these gaps, improve my reading comprehension (especially in classical Chinese), and put me in close geographic proximity to some archives and libraries in Taipei that I'd really love to spend some time in.

A person wearing a dark sweater stands while giving an academic presentation
Jackson Herndon presenting research to an audience of fellow scholars at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Conference of the Association of Asian Studies, January 26-28, 2024

How did your studies in the EAS-MA program prepare you for this award?

This is kind of hard to summarize, because basically everything I've done in APSI has contributed to this outcome in some way or another. Most directly, I continued taking a year of upper-level Chinese language courses during the first year of my MA, and this helped convince me I wanted to go abroad again. Similarly, I received a language scholarship from APSI to study at NTU's ICLP program in the summer before my 2nd year, and my language abilities improved dramatically. I really felt like I wanted to stay longer. More abstractly, writing papers every semester, working with primary historical documents in Chinese, narrowing down my M.A. thesis project, digging through databases and archives, and the hundreds of hours I spent reading and writing the whole thing. Being able to articulate all of this in my Blakemore application materials was, I believe, a convincing way of demonstrating that I'm committed to this course of study.​
What was your favorite class at Duke?

This is difficult to answer. In terms of course content and lectures, Professor Fredric Jameson's "Versions of Marx" was unforgettable. I read voraciously for this course, and I don't think I've ever put as much effort into weekly response posts. "Culture and Environment in Modern China," a course taught by my advisor, Professor Prasenjit Duara, was also seminal for me. Our in-class discussions/debates were rich and wide ranging, and I feel like it was in this seminar (and through Professor Duara's feedback) that my M.A. thesis project really came together. Lastly, I'd say that Professor Carlos Rojas' "Chinese Im/Migration" pushed me outside of more narrowly historical approaches and into cultural/media studies, and this has ultimately ended up contributing significantly to my current academic trajectory. Pedagogically, this was also one of the best classes I've ever taken.
Are there any faculty you would like to recognize in particular?

Of course! I really can't thank my M.A. thesis committee members enough: Professors Prasenjit Duara, Eileen Chow, Carlos Rojas, and Nicole Barnes, all of whom I owe a tremendous amount to. Thank you once again!
What advice would you give to other Duke students interested in applying for the Blakemore Freeman fellowship?

Although the Blakemore Freeman fellowship supports many academics and graduate students, it is not a dissertation writing fellowship. I don't know the exact reason for my success, but I believe it is in part because I tried to express how significant the study of Chinese language is to me. It is, of course, important to articulate your goals and aspirations, and what you plan to do with your Chinese (or Japanese/Korean) language skills in the future, but I really tried to convey that learning this language is a genuine pleasure to me—a​n end and not a mean. It's about establishing enduring personal and cultural connections, not simply furthering my (individual) academic goals.
All of us at APSI and Duke wish Jackson the very best as he advances his Chinese language proficiency through the Blakemore Freeman fellowship opportunity and when he commences his PhD studies.