Emory College historian Chris Suh wins prestigious national award for early-career professors | Emory University

The Institute for Citizens & Scholars has named Emory College historian Chris Suh as one of 10 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders (MEFL) for 2023.

The MEFL is one of the most prestigious awards available for early-career scholars. Suh’s selection comes just weeks after he published his first book, “The Allure of Empire,” which charts U.S. ideas about imperialism and race in the Pacific from 1900 through World War II and the impact of those ideas on American and East Asian politics.

The award will support Suh’s next book, a continuation of his research that examines how Asian and Asian Americans shaped the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s. It also bolsters his efforts to make Emory a more inclusive campus community, especially through his work with undergraduate students.

“I have been very energized by the support I’ve received from the Emory administrators, my colleagues and our students,” Suh says. “I am very grateful and humbled that my labor is being recognized.”

Suh is Emory’s first recipient of the MEFL award, which has supported more than 70 junior faculty leaders in the humanities and social sciences since 2015.

The honor comes with a $17,500 stipend. Suh plans to put the funding toward hiring undergraduate researchers who enhance his research and teaching.

Deboleena Roy, senior associate dean of faculty for Emory College, nominated Suh as the “perfectly suited” candidate for the recognition.

“In the short time that he has been here, Dr. Suh has proven himself to be a dedicated faculty leader in college-wide diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, both through his research and his teaching,” Roy says.

“Students and faculty clearly recognize the important voice he lends to enacting institutional change,” she adds.

Using personal experience to establish his path

Suh’s interest in interrogating the policies that perpetuate racism stems from his own experiences.

When his father returned to their native South Korea after a medical school sabbatical, Suh and his mother stayed in Baltimore so he could complete high school. When he realized his mother had managed to remain in the U.S. by enrolling in a Catholic college, Suh wanted to understand the political policies that created such an avenue and, with it, shaped the myth that Asians and Asian Americans are more intelligent or diligent than other marginalized groups.

He found not only decades of immigration law that prioritized the hyper-educated but also cultural influences that prompted Asian Americans to see the world through an American lens.

Yun Chi-ho, Emory’s first international graduate (in 1893) and a Korean activist who supported Japanese imperialism, serves as an important example of that behavior, as Suh describes in his book.

“We have forgotten there was a strong incentive to embrace imperialism because that is what the United States respected,” Suh says. “The idea of living in the progressive imperialism of the U.S. or Japan was appealing at the time for many people. Only in hindsight is it concerning.”

Expanding student perspectives as a teacher and mentor

The research into Chi-ho helped guide Suh to Emory, where he decided to enlist students in his courses to help recover the university’s Asian American history.

Annie Li 22C was a sophomore trying to envision a career path when she sought Suh’s advice while taking one of his introductory Asian American history courses.

His conversation and recommended reading list helped her pursue a career path in humanities research.

Suh later taught Li in his graduate-level seminar and became the advisor for her honors thesis, which examined the motivations of Chinese American activists from San Francisco’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC) who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the South and the Asian American Movement in the West.

Li is now expanding on that research as a Marshall Scholar working toward a master’s degree in theology at the University of Oxford.

“If Dr. Suh didn’t come to Emory, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go deep intellectually into this field of study and time period,” says Li, who made time for lunch with Suh during a recent Atlanta trip. “You can see how much he has done for students, scholarship and Emory.”

Suh won the Emory College Award for Academic Advising in 2022, just his third year on campus. Among those he mentored were Li, Luce Scholar Yaza Sarieh 20C, and Mikko Biana 21C.

As an international studies major, Biana registered for Suh’s course mainly out of curiosity about his own Filipino heritage.

The class gave him a new perspective, exposing him to the traditional solidarity among Asian, African American and Latin activists, both nationally and on campus. Biana also interviewed Stephen Chen 95C 00L for Suh’s side project, the legacy of Emory’s Asian American activism, which the MEFL will advance.

Chen, the co-founder of Emory’s Students in Alliance for Asian American Concerns, shared the struggles in uniting several groups that remain active on campus today.

Biana incorporated some of those takeaways — the need for resilience and building on historical work — in his 2021 Emory College Orator Address.

Suh also served as a reference for Biana’s master’s degree in education, culture and society at the University of Pennsylvania and remains a mentor now that Biana is at Brooklyn Law School.

“As a professor and a scholar, Professor Suh is always trying to learn more and do more for the students at Emory and for the community,” Biana says. “He has been the best mentor to me, and to a number of students.”

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