Over 100 students, alumni and faculty gathered on Friday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Richard U. Light Fellowship Program, which provides full funding for intensive language study in East Asian countries.

Since its founding in 1996 by a gift from the Richard U. Light Foundation, the program has enabled 1,500 students to study abroad for terms ranging from a single summer to a combined summer and school year term. All three trustees of the foundation, former Light fellows, faculty in East Asian Studies department and administrators involved in the program attended the reception. Rachel Alpert ’03, an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of State and a guest speaker, spoke about her fellowship experience in Beijing in 2001, as well as its impact on her life and career.

Timothy Light ’60, a trustee of the foundation and son of the fellowship namesake Richard U. Light, told the News that the program has greatly exceeded expectations.

“This is much more than my father ever imagined. We’re all very thrilled,” said Timothy Light, whose career has focused on international initiatives and language and literature education. “We hope that more people go on semester and yearlong programs, not just the summer programs, because that’s where it really happens.”

The 90-minute reception also congratulated the 136 Light Fellows who will be receiving full funding to attend intensive language programs in a number of Asian countries next academic year. Light offered the new fellows advice, sharing anecdotes about his own experiences with learning the nuances of Chinese culture and politics.

“Learn enough so that you don’t just see the surface, but you have people you can talk to who will tell you about what is going on and keep that in context with China, Korea and Japan, being just as complicated as the U.S.,” Light said. “You will be embarrassed, you will get over it, but you have an obligation to help Americans understand something beneath the surfaces of these countries.”

According to Nancy Ruther, who co-founded the Richard U. Light executive committee, the fellowship’s initial years required substantial negotiation and program development. The inaugural committee members had to “beat the bushes” to find the first three Light fellows, Ruther said.

The program was also a bold initiative for its time, according to Joe Gordon, former deputy dean of Yale College and dean of undergraduate education.

“In general, many fewer students at Yale or most of the Ivies took advantage of study abroad opportunities,” Gordon said. “Of those that did, they mostly went to the UK and Western Europe — cultures where students were more likely to have the language skills to manage university-level academic work and where the administrative connections to study abroad programs were well-established and easier to negotiate than in East Asia.”

The Light Fellowship also established links between Yale faculty and the faculty in the universities in East Asia, according to Gordon. For example, it supported language instructors to go abroad and evaluate others’ pedagogies and curricula, which Gordon heralded as an effective measure to align Yale’s curricula more closely with those abroad, so that on return from study in East Asia, Yale students could re-enter the language programs seamlessly.

But in the two decades since its establishment, the Light Fellowship has had a significant impact on student learning and Yale at large, according to fellowship director Robert Clough. He highlighted the increased number of advanced East Asian language speakers at Yale, the greater diversity of fellowship recipients and Yale students’ deepened understanding of this region as impacts of the Light Program.

“I’ve seen in my own work with the Light Fellowship dozens, probably hundreds, who had profound moments that not only changed what they were interested in studying but their world views,” said Assistant Director of International Development Alan Baubonis, who previously worked with the Light Fellowship staff.

In her speech, Alpert described her fellowship experience as “life changing.” It was the year the 2008 Olympics bid was announced, Alpert said, and she vividly recalled the night when the Olympic Committee announced that China would host the 2008 Games.

Alpert added that the Light Fellowship inspired in her a love of language that later brought her to study in Damascus and Tel Aviv, where she helped with translation and offered legal advice to Chinese migrant workers in Israel. Alpert cited her experience in Syria, where she befriended the Chinese ambassador to Syria at a tourist site and was invited to the embassy, as another positive experience that stemmed from the Light.

“Embrace this opportunity to focus on your language study. It’s really unique to so singularly focus on studying a language,” she said. “You might not have this opportunity again after you graduate.”

Claire Williamson ’17, who received the Light Fellowship for the summer after her freshman year, said the fellowship had a major positive impact on her life.

Not only was the program itself a wonderful experience, Williamson said, the Light Fellowship has informed her summer internship at the Hokkoku Newspaper in Kanazawa, Japan, her thesis topic and her post-graduation job in Nitori, Japan.

“Having work experience in Japan was, in all likelihood, a key reason why I was hired for this Japanese company,” Williamson said.

Williamson added that study abroad experiences, or even just living in a foreign country for an extended period of time, are essential for personal growth.

“It forces you to get outside your comfort zone. It forces you to step away from the safe boundaries of your family and support system and figure some things out for yourself,” Williamson said. “I have made so many new — and hopefully lifelong — friends from all the time I’ve spent in Japan, most of which has been the result of the Light Fellowship I received.”

Jason Douglass ’13 GRD ’22, who will be going on his fourth Light Fellowship this summer, said he found the fellowship to be more rewarding than a typical study abroad program in Europe, adding that he met most of his closest friends through foreign language programs. Douglass also met his partner, Ming-Yee Lin ’10, through one of his Light programs. Lin, who told the News that she finds working with Light fellows to be “incredibly rewarding,” now serves as the assistant director of the Light Fellowship.

Destination countries for Light Fellowship include China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Correction, April 25: The previous version of the article said Alan Baubonis has been with the Light Fellowship program since 2010 when he has in fact since left. It also incorrectly referred to Yale students’ deeper understanding of China when in fact Yale students are placed in a variety of East Asian countries.