As student interest in East Asia has increased steadily in recent years, the Light Fellowship — which funds students’ summer or term-time study in Asia — may not be able to keep pace with growing demand.

This year, International Education and Fellowship Programs predicted that 90 students, or 60 percent of applicants, will be awarded the fellowship, down from 118 students, or 75 percent of applicants, last year. Faculty members in the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department credit the fellowship with encouraging undergraduates to pursue language study in Asia. Since the inception of the Richard U. Light Fellowship in 1996, the number of applications for the program has risen from 12 to 151.

Although doctoral students are no longer eligible for the fellowship and seniors were discouraged from applying this year, the fellowship office received only six fewer applications than last year’s 157. The number of sophomores applying increased from 64 to 71, he said.

Light Fellowship director Kelly McLaughlin said the program’s goal is to encourage long-term involvement in East Asia through intensive language study and cultural immersion. The Fellowship’s generous awards, which are usually around $7,000 for a summer abroad and $15,000 for a semester, allow students to further the instruction they receive at Yale, which he said is instrumental in fostering students’ interest in East Asia.

“There could be a lot of reasons to stop taking [a language] class, but for many it’s the class they look forward to most, and that has to say something about the quality of teaching,” McLaughlin said. “At the root of all this success is the language program at Yale.”

Yale offers no comparable fellowship for language study in any other region.

The number of students majoring in East Asian languages and literatures and East Asian studies has been rising steadily over the past several years. Last year the number of junior and senior East Asian languages and literatures majors reached a high of eight, twice the number of majors as during the 2003-’04 academic year, according to the Office of Institutional Research. Similarly, the number of junior and senior East Asian studies majors jumped from 15 to 28 from 2002-’03 to 2005-’06, the OIR reports.

Christopher Hill, director of undergraduate studies of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department, said students now consider studying abroad an integral part of their study of East Asia while at Yale, which he said the Light Fellowships have had a hand in promoting.

“Over the last five years, students are beginning to think that going abroad to China, Japan, Korea or Taiwan is just a normal part of their academic studies related to East Asia, and the Light Fellowships have really been the vanguard in encouraging the interest of going abroad,” Hill said.

Because of students’ growing level of expertise in East Asian languages, Hill said, the department is targeting those students by creating additional courses to accommodate their language proficiency. Students in his department will be paired with a graduate student who will provide guidance about finding Chinese, Japanese or Korean language sources to use as part of their senior projects.

In addition, the East Asian Languages and Literatures department is in the process of recruiting two new faculty members — one in Chinese literature and another in Japanese literature — who will be cross-appointed in Theater Studies, said Edward Kamens, director of graduate studies for the department. The ongoing searches represent a significant expansion in the literature program because they are entirely new positions for the University, Kamens said.

Erica Smith ’08, who used the Light Fellowship to study in Beijing during the spring and summer of 2006, said the experience offered a cultural immersion that improved her language skills far more than would be possible at Yale.

“In the classroom, you learn structure and vocabulary, but it’s when you’re outside with your friends, shopping and eating, that you learn the culture and language that go with it,” she said.

Although Smith said Yale’s Chinese and Japanese course offerings are extensive, she thinks the department should offer a concentration in Korean studies. But she said professors are trying to supplement that area with more cultural and history classes.

East Asian studies major Michael Schmale ‘08 said students can benefit from the interdisciplinary approach that is currently the department’s focus, but he would like to see more region-focused classes.

“East Asian Studies is at its core an amalgamation of disciplines,” Schmale said. “At the same time, it would be nice to see a lot more comparative stuff, maybe classes on area-specific relations between Japan, China and Korea.”

To allow for the study of East Asia, Yale employs more than 20 core faculty members and 15 language instructors across 12 different departments, according to the Council on East Asian Studies.