Q&A with New Colombo Plan scholar Alice Dawkins

Alice Dawkins enchanced

An intensive Burmese language course in the winter of her second year led Alice Dawkins to discover her fascination for Myanmar’s rich history. After completing the honours component of her Asian Studies degree last year, Alice is currently wrapping up her Law studies in Yangon on the New Colombo Plan (NCP) initiative. Among her numerous academic achievements, she recently helped prepare analysis for an article published in The New York Times. CAP caught up with Alice to discuss her success.

What ignited your passion for studying Myanmar?

It was really quite an odd sequence of events. I was doing student theatre which had me stuck in Canberra over the long winter for rehearsals. I was keen to make use of the time and do a winter course, and saw that ANU College of Asia & the Pacific was offering an intensive in Burmese. My maternal side is made up of mixed South Asian ancestry, and I knew part of the family had shuttled between Lahore, Calcutta, and Rangoon, as it was then called. Some family members had even been born there. So I was always peripherally aware of this place, but knew very little about it. After the language course, my degree gradually took a turn towards Myanmar.

You recently completed your honours in Asian Studies. Are you glad you elected to add that extra year to your degree?

Doing my honours on the Chinese Nationalist ‘incursion’ in Myanmar through CAP was, without a doubt, the best use of one year. I continue to pick up opportunities based on the foundations I made during that period, and I was so lucky because the topic I developed together with my supervisor Dr Nich Farrelly really utilised my previous experiences in both China and Myanmar. As Dr Farrelly remarked at one point, it was a topic that was uniquely suited to the expertise available at the ANU.

What has been your most rewarding experience as an NCP scholarship recipient?

It’s been the flexibility to go off and take up a range of different projects in-country. There’s just so much happening in Yangon, no matter where your interest lies, there’s talented people working on it, and there’s some way you can contribute. It’s terrifically exciting being based here and watching the city transform, already I’ve seen an obvious change since arriving in November.

How has being in-country complemented your studies in the classrooms at ANU?

I definitely needed the combination of classroom studies and in-country experience. ANU exposed me to such cutting-edge work on matters of Myanmar politics, history, culture and language, and it made a significant difference to arrive here with a baseline knowledge. For being in-country, clearly it skyrockets your language ability, and having the chance to be based here for a long stint means that finally, a whole lot of dots are connecting in my head. Now, four years after starting with the language, I feel like it’s cementing into a decent foundation.

You’re the first NCP scholar to travel to Myanmar for a full year. How does it feel to blaze a trail, and what advice would you offer to students looking to pursue a similar path?

In some ways it’s blazing a trail, although I am following in the footsteps of many ANU faculty and students who have done great work here. I think that’s the most important thing to remember when you embark on these programs – yes, there’s excitement about being in the early stages of what I hope will be a long cooperation between Australian and Myanmar institutions – but people have come before us in much more trying conditions, and for this generation of students, we’re reaping massive benefits. So, enjoy every single minute that Myanmar in 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond has to offer, but do it with a cognisance that Australia and indeed ANU has been entangled with Myanmar’s history for longer than we realise. And for sure – apply for the NCP scholarship to Myanmar!

You provided analysis for a recent article in The New York Times. How did that opportunity come about?

That was immense! Honestly, I’m still a little stunned by it all. It just shows that no matter how niche or esoteric your honours work feels at the time, it can lead to work in some of the world’s most widely circulated newspapers. The lead author contacted me because I had provided work for another publication, on 1950s history in the Shan states, based off my honours thesis. She was keen to pick my brain on what sources we could find to strengthen her work on Olive Yang’s life. Luckily, the archives in Yangon proved to be very useful, and I was able to share ground-breaking documents that revealed some facts about Olive that previously we had only assumed.

Ultimately I put the work in because I genuinely love historical inquiry, particularly where it touches on this odd time of modern history where China and Myanmar rub together.

What’s it like having your work published by one of the world’s most respected newspapers before you’ve even graduated?

I suppose a big lesson coming out of this experience is to have the courage to share your work! The article that led me to the New York Times byline was something I wrote halfway through honours, done on a bit of a whim, when I didn’t feel I was that secure in the literature. People tend to assume that the only home for your honours work is an academic journal publication, which I’m working on, but that won’t be anywhere near completion for at least another year. Beyond journal publications, you can either condense your thesis for magazines and news sites, or even look to expanding it for book publication.

Asian Studies is a field that lends itself very well to highly readable non-fiction stories. Just looking at the time period and place I worked on, you have stories of Chinese professors hanging out with Shan princes, female warlords who were carting raw opium through the hills, armed mule caravans crossing back and forth along the frontier – tell me that’s not cinematic! I think in Australia we have an increasingly receptive audience to hear those kind of stories, and history is a nice vantage point to do it from.  Asian Studies isn’t all policy analysis and institutions, it’s human stories, people, places, and everything in between.

What are your plans after you graduate?

I graduated from Asian Studies Honours last year, and I’m in the process of finishing up my law studies now – all going well, my last subjects will be in the summer session. Once I finish, my plan is to stay in Myanmar and continuing to follow my interests – incidentally the same ones laid down in my ANU studies. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions from my honours thesis, archives I am yet to visit both in Myanmar and further afield in the region, and I do think the story from my thesis can be expanded for a wider audience. Once you’ve made sense of its shape and energy, Yangon is a great city to be based in.