Former Gustavus Postdoc Named Curator at Smithsonian

Sam Vong, who served as the College's inaugural Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow, is now Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian.
Posted on November 7th, 2018 by

Aerial view of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (photo by Carol M. Highsmith, public domain)

Dr. Sam C. Vong, who served as Gustavus Adolphus College’s inaugural Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow from 2013-2015, was recently appointed Curator of Asian Pacific American History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“This is an exciting opportunity to engage and educate the broader public,” Vong said. “The Smithsonian’s commitment to this position is a testament to the growing and diverse population of Asian Americans in the United States.”

In his daily work, Vong does research to collect, catalog, and curate objects for the exhibits that he organizes. In addition to curating artifacts and sources to document the Asian Pacific American experience, he works closely with communities to discuss their distinctive history and how they might be represented in each exhibit. Each day also includes a healthy dose of research and writing – Vong is currently working on a book focusing on Southeast Asian refugees following the Vietnam War.

Dr. Sam Vong

Though he’s no longer in the classroom, Vong sees his new role as an expansion of his work as an educator. “Millions of people visit the Smithsonian’s museums each year, and this is an opportunity to engage them in learning about Asian Pacific Americans and American history more generally,” Vong said. “An exciting challenge of this job is figuring out how to represent Asian America, which is incredibly diverse in terms of culture, linguistics, religions, politics – there are so many different racial and ethnic communities that are represented in this group called Asian Pacific Americans.”

As the College’s first-ever Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow, Vong taught one class per semester, spent a significant amount of time on research, writing, and scholarship, and served as an informal advisor and mentor to Gustavus students. The fellowship program was developed in 2013 concurrently with the College’s membership in the Consortium for Faculty Diversity to increase the diversity of the College’s faculty – and the variety of experiences and viewpoints shared with students – by providing dedicated opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. Now in its sixth year, the program has included postdoctoral scholars with expertise ranging from Muslim-American inclusion and gender, women, and sexuality studies to international politics and economic/foreign policy reform in Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro.

“Gustavus had a very important role to play in my career. It prepared me to teach by learning from some of the most skilled and talented professors in the history department,” Vong said, noting that his time on campus helped develop his teaching and research skills while connecting him with mentors such as Professors Eric Carlson, Greg Kaster, and David Tobaru Obermiller. “Getting to know the students was one of the most enriching experiences. Coming from Los Angeles, living in Saint Peter really opened my eyes to new people and new environments.”

Following his time as the Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow, Vong took a tenure-track position at The University of Texas at Austin, where he taught Asian-American history and refugee studies for three years while serving as a core faculty member in the Center for Asian-American Studies. His role at the Smithsonian began on September 1.

“Sam’s position as Curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is a testament to his talents as a teacher and scholar. His inaugural role as the Bruce Gray Fellow not only had a positive impact on students in his courses by enhancing their understanding of Asian Pacific American history, but also on the broader community through his scholarly engagement with Gustavus faculty and staff and colleagues within his professional discipline,” Gustavus Provost and Dean of the College Brenda Kelly said.  “The College’s continued commitment toward initiatives like the Bruce Gray Fellowship support the ambitious goals set forth within the Gustavus Acts Strategic Plan to diversify and expand the Gustavus community and to implement initiatives ethically engage the world in its diversity.”

Vong, who holds a doctorate from Yale University, earned his undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s degree in history from California State University, Los Angeles. His doctoral dissertation, “Compassion Politics: Indochinese Refugees and the Transnational Politics of Care, 1975-1994,” investigates the role of compassion in society and the ways that individuals seek to fulfill ethical obligations to others.

The Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellowship is named after longtime Gustavus administrator Bruce Gray ’61, who spent 44 years in the admission, student life, and advancement offices. Gray is best known for his efforts to recruit more students of color to Gustavus. He wrote and published the book Black and Bold, a personal memoir about the history of African American students at the College.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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