The Light Fellowship will send a record number of students to study in Asia this year free of charge, thanks to a million-dollar boost in the program’s funding authorized by University President Richard Levin, officials for International Education and Fellowship Programs announced Tuesday.

This year, 139 students won the awards — which fully fund summer or term-time study of East Asian languages in Asia — up from 103 last year, an increase of 35 percent. The additional awards were made possible by a guarantee from Levin that any student found qualified by the Light Fellowship Executive Committee will receive funding, either from the Richard U. Light Fellowship or from the President’s Office, IEFP officials said.

“We were told, ‘Fund ’em if they’re vetted,’ ” Light Fellowship Director Kelly McLaughlin said.

Past and present Light Fellowship recipients interviewed said they were pleased to hear that Levin has increased the funding available for intensive East Asian language study. But even they themselves questioned whether the University should be devoting more funding for Elis to study abroad in Asia when no similar fellowship exists for other regions of the world.

The Light Fellowship has enough money to fund about 90 students per year, McLaughlin said, at a total cost of between $800,000 and $900,000. Given that the 50 other Light Fellows require additional funding — and that more students each year are choosing to study abroad during the academic year, which is more expensive than the summer — this year’s cost is expected to rise to about $1.8 million, McLaughlin said.

The specific source of the additional funding has not yet been determined, McLaughlin said, but Levin has promised to make up any shortfall in Light Fellowship funding for this year. IEFP will not know until next December whether Levin’s offer will be renewed for the following year, McLaughlin said.

Last year, the news that IEFP would award the Light Fellowship to fewer students because of financial constraints prompted Levin to allocate funds from the Maurice R. Greenberg Yale-China Initiative to supplement money from the Light Foundation, allowing additional students to study in Asia.

Light Fellows may study in China, Japan, Korea or Taiwan, although the vast majority spend their time in either China or Taiwan.

Levin’s promise of additional funding made the entire Light process much smoother this year, IEFP Director Barbara Rowe said. As a result of the new money, the awards were announced earlier than usual — at the end of January — and the committee’s deliberations took less time because members did not have to put together a wait list, Rowe said.

“It’s really exciting for those of us involved in the fellowship, that we don’t have to turn away someone who’s deemed worthy of the award,” Rowe said.

As was the case in past years, undergraduates and graduate students were eligible for the fellowship but doctoral students were not.

Students interviewed who have already been to Asia on Light Fellowships said the experience offered a cultural immersion that improved their language skills far more than would be possible at Yale.

“[The fellowship] gave me the opportunity to learn the language and use the language,” said Devin Lau ’09, who studied in Beijing last summer with the Duke Study in China Program. “As opposed to the States, where we don’t get to use Chinese in real-life situations, the Duke program sent us out into the city to learn.”

But many past and present Light Fellows, along with students who study non-East Asian languages, agreed that the comparative lack of funding for language study in other regions is troubling.

“It’s an inequality in the distribution of resources,” said Jessica Chang ’09, who studies German. She added that she thinks of the Light Fellowship as just one more manifestation of Yale’s current fascination with Asia, and China in particular.

Victor Wong ’09, who studied in Beijing in summer 2006 with the Duke program, said he questions whether there were really enough additional applicants dedicated to language study but not receiving the Light Fellowship to merit extra funding. Because the fellowship is so generous, he said, some applicants may not be serious about improving their language skills.

“I don’t think it should be seen as a vacation that’s paid for by Yale,” Wong said.

In addition, the difference between the financial situations of the Light Fellows and the other students on the Duke program was immediately apparent, Wong said.

While the self-funded students were conscious of their budgets, the Yale students acted far more carefree in spending their money, he said. As a result, he said, the Yale students could explore the city to a greater degree than the others but also faced something of a divide from their peers.

Applications to the Light Fellowship have increased steadily since the program’s inception, rising from 12 in 1996 to 151 last year. IEFP officials declined to release the number of applications received this year.

Of the 139 award winners, 106 — or 76 percent — are planning to study in Asia during the summer. Twenty-five students, or 18 percent, said they will study for a full academic year or more, a number McLaughlin said the office has been working hard to increase.

The number of students who actually end up studying in Asia may be slightly lower than the number awarded fellowships because some students may not be accepted into study-abroad programs or may decide not to participate, McLaughlin said.

The typical award for an eight-week summer study program is $8,000, while a semester award averages around $18,000.