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Alumni Profile: Erik Quam

August 29, 2016

Photo of Beijing skyline

Photo of Beijing skyline
Photo: Sean Pavone,

When did you graduate from UMN? With what degree?
I graduated from the University in spring 2003 with a triple major in Asian languages and literature (emphasis in Chinese), history, and international relations.

What did you do after you graduated?
I started by building my Chinese language skills. After graduation from the U, Professor Joseph Allen encouraged me to study at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan for three academic quarters. I received a scholarship to cover some of the costs associated with that program. The following year I attended the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American studies. Then I completed my MA in international policy studies with a certificate in nonproliferation studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

My first job after the MA was a China analyst for the Department of Defense. After about two years I started work for the State Department.

What do you do? What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I work in the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN). ISN leads the department's efforts to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. I work in our Regional Affairs Office on the East Asia team where I coordinate and execute US nonproliferation and security policy in East Asia. My portfolio primarily covers engagement with China and Taiwan on these issues. I enjoy the challenge of working to find mutually beneficial solutions to nonproliferation issues in our engagement with our partners in East Asia. My job also includes frequent travel to Asia and was one of the reasons I made the switch to the State Department.

What did you like best about your experience in the Asian languages and literatures department at the University of Minnesota?
I loved all of it. When I was at the University, I became fascinated by China—the language, culture, politics, and history. The staff in the Asian languages and literature department was so friendly and encouraging and the coursework was demanding. The closest connections I made at the U were with the Chinese language professors, in particular Li Laoshi (Ms. Chi-Ping Li), who was my professor at both the U and at National Taiwan University—she was tough but wonderful and really motivated me to work hard. At the time the Asian languages and literature department was a small community that created a very personalized experience, which I valued a great deal.

How did taking a foreign language help you post graduation?
Studying Chinese in ALL was critical to building my language base and sparked a lifelong passion for studying China and the region. I don’t believe that you can understand Chinese culture (or any culture) and history without being able to speak and understand the language first. I believe ALL was an important first step in that process.

What advice would you have for undergraduate students of ALL?
Spend time in the region, however you can. Studying abroad was the best way for me because it would have been difficult to work on my language skills on my own and it helped me to avoid becoming too involved in the expat community—which is full of great and interesting people, but not great for learning foreign languages.

If studying is not an affordable option for you—get a job, it doesn’t have to be in your ideal job field, it just has to be in a country that speaks the language you are trying to study. When you're abroad, the simple, everyday experiences are so useful for language development and building understanding of the country you are studying—in my opinion way more helpful than anything you’ll learn sitting in a classroom. Traveling, working, using public transit, doing laundry—just moving through a place is great learning experience.

I’d also say that there doesn’t have to be one path to success. Be flexible. For example, I didn’t get into the Hopkins-Nanjing Center after graduating from the U. Instead I got into National Taiwan University, which turned out to be one of the best years of my life. If the first plan doesn’t work out, remain open to other opportunities. You have the rest of your life to find the perfect job, spend time working in the country you are passionate about studying—it is the best way to learn about the culture and improve your language skills.

Lastly, reach out to anyone who offers a business card! Be proactive in utilizing the people you have met. They may not come to you for opportunities—reach out and be persistent and you may be rewarded with opportunities that may surprise you.

How do you/do you keep your language skills up to date?
Mostly through continued research using Chinese language primary sources. One of the great things about the internet is that there is no shortage of Chinese written material for research but also, to just try to keep reading skills sharp while away from the region. I usually go to China 3 to 5 times a year for work which provides opportunities to keep the rust off my speaking and listening skills. When it's available, I take language training at work.