Spotlight on Associate Professor Elizabeth Chacko


By Yvonne Yap Ying Ying
Yvonne (Sociology + USP, Year 2) is a guest student writer for Highlights

Humans have always been spurred by a sense of adventure, and USP has seen flocks of students depart for foreign lands on research trips, expeditions, exchanges, and even double degree programme. But if we are interested in knowing more about the impact of our travels on the places we visit, there is no better person to approach than Associate Professor Elizabeth Chacko from the George Washington University, who is teaching at USP this semester and residing at the USP residential college. I sat down for a chat with her.

So Professor, you have become a familiar face to USP students since you started teaching in August. Can you tell us more about yourself?

I am a geographer - a human geographer, which means that I study the interactions between people and place. My specialty is immigration, and in the past I have mostly focused on studying the effects of immigration on cities, but also to some extent, identifying the flows between countries and the impacts these migration streams have on both sending and receiving countries.

Our academic interests stem from somewhere, so do you have any experiences of immigration that got you interested in the topic in the first place?

I am actually an immigrant myself [laughs]. I went to the United States from India as a student in 1990 with the intention of getting a degree and returning home, but I became quite enamoured with the American education system and so I decided to stay on for a PhD. One thing led to another, and I’ve been a professor at the George Washington University [GWU] for the last fifteen years or so. As an immigrant, I feel like I can relate to many of the things I study, like conflicts regarding changing identities. I live in the city of Washington D.C., and we have immigrants from over two hundred countries there.  When you look closely, the impact that larger groups of immigrants have on the city is quite profound in terms of the kinds of work that they do, the spaces they occupy, and even in creating ethnic spaces that are also tourist attractions.

Are there any great anecdotes you’ll like to share with us?

A colleague and I had gone for a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, and after that we went for a trip up the Atlas Mountains. Morocco, as you know, is a Muslim country, and up in the Atlas Mountains there are mostly nomadic people who have been settled by the government. We came across an interesting field with jagged pieces of rock sticking out with no inscriptions and we didn’t realise that it was a cemetery until we asked the car to stop and stepped onto it; the driver yelled at us “No, no, no, don’t do that!” because you’re not supposed to be walking on [laughs], you know, graves…so even with the best of intentions, you can be culturally compromised in many ways.

(Second from right) Associate Professor Elizabeth Chacko in Singapore for GWU-NUS Twin Cities Dialogue Series 2011, themed Tourism, National Image, and Identity

So what motivated you to come to USP in Singapore and teach for a semester?

Well, Singapore is actually extremely familiar to me since I’ve been here many times. Some of my visits have been in connection with the USP actually, because GWU and USP have a longstanding programme [the GWU-USP Twin-City Dialogue] where students from both sides engage in long distance, collaborative learning and also visit each other. This programme began way back in 2004 and I was actually its first Director. I’ve known Professor Pang [former USP Director] and Professor Kang [former USP Deputy Director] for as long as I’ve known USP [laughs]. I also have a brother who is a citizen of Singapore, which is of course another reason to visit. I have had consistently fabulous experiences here at USP. I’ve found the students to be very engaged, very smart, and since I got a Fulbright scholarship, I thought that it would be good to have USP as my academic home to fulfill my teaching requirement. The class that I’m teaching is “UHB2208: Immigration and the City”, which is a spin-off from my research, and a lot of the research that my students are doing in this class is actually Singapore-based.

One huge part of USP is its residential life, so how are you finding it so far?

I have not actually lived on college campuses since I was a student so it’s a pretty novel experience for me, but it’s also very comfortable and fun. What really struck me was that my students seem to be happy to engage with me out of the classroom. I didn’t want to presume that my students would want to talk to me outside of class so I usually sit alone or with colleagues in the dining hall. 

One morning, I looked up and saw one of my students walking across the dining hall with a tray, we smiled at each other and I was very surprised and delighted that he came and joined me. We had this wonderful conversation over breakfast - in fact I think that’s the longest I ever spent at breakfast…I forgot to eat my breakfast [laughs].

So I feel like I get to know the students a little more because of the residential nature of USP.

What interesting activities have you done or are planning to do in Singapore?

One thing that’s really famous about Singapore is the food, and I have been sampling and will continue to sample many of the culinary delights. I seem to have done many of the tourist-y things, but what I really enjoy is getting to know the neighbourhoods a lot more. I had my first foray into them with USP students actually…we went into Geylang which I had never visited before. It was an eye-opener because it seems so different from the rest of Singapore. Most tourists bypass the heartlands and neighbourhoods but as a geographer, these places interest me much more than Marina Bay [laughs].  As for Geylang, it’s less…less sanitised than other places in Singapore; it feels like a typical Asian city whereas most of Singapore feels like a mix between a Western and Eastern city. There’re lots more of what you’d call “unsavoury” activities taking place – I don’t speak Chinese so I couldn’t understand the exchanges but when some of my students pointed out things, it was an “Aha!” moment for me. Even though there seem to be a lot of Chinese migrant labourers who hang out there on the weekend, what I’ve also noticed is that from the written signs, other low-skilled migrant workers from countries such as India or Bangladesh probably also visit because there are signs in Hindi and Bangla. So, you see, I like to walk around cities and ‘decode’ the landscape, which is really fun.

So, what next after Singapore? Are you hoping to start anything new?

My sabbatical is until the end of June, 2014.  I just received funding for a small project in Punjab, India, where I will be spending the month of January, doing fieldwork. The grant also provides funding for an undergraduate research assistant from GWU.  I have already selected the student and both of us are looking forward to working together. Hopefully, I’ll have gathered enough data and material on my Singapore project by the end of this year to start analysing. I plan to stay mostly in India after Singapore, use that as my base and start writing. My Fulbright-funded research focuses on the Singapore government’s policy of getting old and new streams of migrants from India to forge a collective identity while still building an identity as Singaporeans. I will be devoting a lot of time to research and writing, but I’m also hoping for some more travel and fun.

You will leave us after December. Do you have any parting words for us?

I’ve had a great time here, and when NUS was declared the number one university in Asia, I posted on my Facebook page saying “Yay, NUS! Congratulations on being the top ranked university!” One of my colleagues at GWU immediately posted to my newsfeed telling me that my affiliation is changing from GWU to NUS, so you can definitely see that I’ve had a wonderful experience here.

4 November 2013