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A passion for language and culture

July 2, 2019
Written by
Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Moniek van Rheenen

Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Moniek van Rheenen

ANN ARBOR—Moniek van Rheenen first traveled to Indonesia in 2014 as an undergraduate Fulbright awardee. She spent the next 10 months working as an English teaching assistant in the city of Pekanbaru and learning about the Minangkabau language and culture in West Sumatra.

Now a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Michigan, van Rheenen is traveling back to Indonesia, thanks to the Boren Fellowship for International Study. Boren Fellowships are awarded to applicants who show an interest in less commonly taught languages.

She will spend the next 18 months in Jakarta and West Sumatra’s capital city Padang, learning Minangkabau, one of the lesser known Indonesian languages.

“I absolutely fell in love with this very tight-knit community,” said van Rheenen. “I became part of the community and still have a strong relationship with my Minangkabau teachers, friends, and host families.”

Van Rheenen credits her time at U-M and the strong Southeast Asian studies and anthropology departments in helping her narrow down her interests for her doctoral thesis.

“I started out interested in migration, youth language and language socialization. Now I’m interested in language, gender and religion. That transition was driven by conversations with my colleagues at U-M,” she said.

Minangkabau social norms are also very intriguing to van Rheenen, particularly their conservative Muslim traditions and gender relations.

“Women tend to own property and have positions of power, both in society and cultural roles,” she said.

This matrilineal culture, contrary to Muslim tradition, is what interests her the most.

In addition to the Boren Fellowship, van Rheenen also has a Fulbright scholarship and a National Science Foundation grant to spend time abroad.

“I want to use my grants to improve my Minangkabau speaking, but I also want to have a better understanding of what different forms of activism and empowerment look like in a different cultural settings,” she said.

The Boren Fellowship also requires recipients to work in the federal government for at least a year after completing the study abroad experience—a prospect that excites van Rheenen.

“I’m interested in academia as a career, but my time at U-M has opened my options,” she said. “I’ve become interested in alternatives to academia. Working for the government has been on my mind as a possible career option.”

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