Work Still Exciting for Program Coordinator after 30 Years

Shirley Lawrence, program coordinator for the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, relaxes in the center’s Japanese-style tatami room.
Posted 12/19/05

Growing up in Massachusetts, Shirley Lawrence never gave much thought to customs in Asian countries. But during her 18 years as program coordinator for the East Asian Studies Program, Lawrence has acquired not only knowledge, but a deep appreciation for Asian art, music and culture.

“Being here 18 years, I feel as though the program continually evolves,” Lawrence says. “I thoroughly enjoy it, and the environment is so stimulating. It’s never the same one year to the next, and I get so much out of the events that I’ve been a part of.”

Over the years Lawrence has coordinated such events as tours of the Freeman Family Japanese Garden, lectures on U.S.-Japan security relations, presentations on America’s relations with Vietnam and the traditional drumming and dance of Korean p’ungmulnori by members of the Wesleyan Korean Drumming ensemble.

In addition to handling logistical issues with the speakers and performers, Lawrence writes press releases, maintains the center’s mailing list, manages the program’s budget, arranges accommodations and oversees the center’s Outreach Program.

The program provides hands-on cultural activities for school-aged children. The groups of 22 are bussed in, and have the option of learning Chinese or Japanese calligraphy, cooking Chinese, Japanese or Korean dishes, studying martial arts, playing traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments, reading folktales, making origami or participating in a Japanese tea ceremony. Younger children have the option of wearing vibrant Japanese kimonos during the presentations.

“The Outreach Program is my favorite part about working here,” she says. “I love to see the children immersed in these unique, cultural activities. They won’t forget their experience here.”

Lawrence has also attended numerous ethnic music programs and Chinese theater events, and has taken East Asian history and music courses.

Lawrence began her Wesleyan career 30 years ago, in a part-time position the Mathematics Department where she remained until 1977. Lawrence moved to the Center of Humanities where she worked until 1985, and she worked in Alumni Programs until 1987 when the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies officially opened on Washington Terrace. The center’s new addition will open in January 2006 and host classes and events in a 100-seat lecture hall.

“We don’t want people to think of the center as that place on the edge of campus. It is a perception we work hard to change,” Lawrence says. “We do our best to get the word out about our programs and events.”

Vera Schwarcz, Mansfield Professor of East Asian Studies, Professor of History and former chair of the East Asian Studies program, has relied on Lawrence’s vision and support for many years. Schwarcz says several of the distinguished guests that she has brought to Wesleyan have commented on her efficiency, her thoughtful planning for every aspect of their visit.

“Shirley has always been an enthusiastic partner in building East Asian Studies at Wesleyan, and in making the Freeman Center an utterly unique, gracious resource for students and visitors alike,” says Schwarcz, who was founding director.  “She’s always there with a smile and a suggestion about yet another way to make our mission more meaningful to the community at large. She’s a true jewel of commitment and service at Wesleyan.”

Lawrence says technology has been the biggest change. In 1975, she used an electric typewriter with hand-held mathematical-symbol keys while working in the Math Department.

“I was no mathematician, I was just a secretary and I could have created some amazing math formulas with those greater and less than symbols,” she says, smiling. “I didn’t always know what I was typing.”

Lawrence says she’s also impressed with the number of construction projects popping up throughout the campus landscape.

“The growth here on campus recently has been extraordinary,” she says, noting the new Center for Film Studies, the Susan Lemberg Usdan University Center, Freeman Athletic Center, Fauver Field Residences and the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies extension.

Lawrence says she may retire in five years to devote more time to her two grandchildren, gardening, knitting, church projects and traveling – via motorcycle – with her husband, Ted. However, the thought of leaving Wesleyan is a difficult one for her right now.

“I would really miss this,” she says, from her sunny, corner office. “This atmosphere is so invigorating, and the students bring so much enthusiasm here. I’d miss their high-energy. It rubs off on us all.”

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor