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Damian dives into teaching history, Asian studies at Monmouth College

Barry McNamara
History professor Michelle Damian
Michelle Damian is “over the moon” about the opportunity to work with students at Monmouth College.

Damian, who is a new history professor at the College, earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at larger universities: University of California-Berkeley, George Washington University, East Carolina University and the University of Southern California. Damian said she was attracted to teach at Monmouth because of the opportunity professors have to work closely with students.

“I’m really enjoying my relationships with the students,” she said. “You don’t get those relationships TA-ing at USC. You maybe run into a student you know one year down the line. Here, you might have some of the same students you’ve had in a previous class. I’m over the moon about that. You get to see how much they grow from freshmen to seniors, and I know I’m really going to enjoy that.”

Damian said she also enjoys developing her own curriculum, which includes bringing back an emphasis on Asian studies that experienced a heyday at Monmouth College 50 years ago. Damian teaches classes about Pre-Modern Japan and World War II, and she plans to offer one on maritime archaeology.

As far back as high school, Damian said she figured her career would have an international flavor.

“In high school, I took a number of foreign languages, including Russian,” said Damian, who began teaching history at Monmouth last fall. “The superpowers were the U.S. and Russia, and Japan was also prominent in business and technology, so I was encouraged to get Japanese in there, too. The thinking was, if I had English, Russian and Japanese, I would definitely get a job somewhere.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in Asian studies at the University of California-Berkeley, Damian found work in Japan. She held several international relations positions while living there for seven years. One of her common objectives while working for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program and other organizations was to “help make foreigners less foreign in many ways.”

That also applied to Damian, who learned to speak Japanese well enough to blend in seamlessly.

“The proudest moment I had was when I was staying in Kyoto with a host family,” she said. “I had to make a doctor’s appointment over the phone. When I got through, the woman asked my name, and I said ‘Michelle Damian.’ There was a long pause, and then the woman asked, ‘Are you Miss Damian’s interpreter?’ That made me feel good.”

Damian’s interest in maritime archaeology grew out of her interest in scuba diving, which was born during a vacation in Saipan in 2000.

“I was in Saipan, doing the tourist thing,” she said. “I went on an underwater excursion, and saw some really beautiful things, but I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want the wall of a submarine between me and what I’m seeing.’ So I got certified to dive.”

While completing a master’s degree in museum studies at George Washington, she heard about a dive group that was meeting on a river in Maryland.

“It was black water diving, which is like diving by Braille,” she said. “I was down there, helping bring a voice to a shipwrecked schooner from about a hundred years ago, and I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.’”

Damian realized that a change of course was in order, so she studied for another master’s degree – maritime history and nautical archaeology at East Carolina.

“Because I’d been working on it so long, I figured I could roll in the Japan aspect and get a degree in Asian maritime archaeology, but there wasn’t a degree in that yet,” she said. “The people at East Carolina said, ‘We’re willing to help you and set you on that path.’”

That led to USC, where Damian received her Ph.D. in pre-modern Japanese history.

When not teaching, Damian keeps her language skills sharp by Skyping with friends in Japan. The self-described “national park dork” enjoys seeing those sights in her spare time, and she is also enjoying the benefits of being a homeowner. In fact, she moved into a home right down the street from her Wallace Hall office.