UW-Madison News (November 4, 2009) — When the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, it effectively defeated the United States in the first round of the space race. And while the United States responded in kind with Pioneer 1, it also transformed its Cold War engagement by launching a terrestrial initiative — one that involved UW–Madison back then and does so to this day.
After World War II, the Eisenhower administration understood that it was woefully unprepared for the country’s new position of world leadership. The government needed multilingual specialists with firsthand knowledge of the history, politics and culture of strategically important regions, and it needed to develop future foreign service personnel. These goals required centers that could house experts and serve as depositories of information about world regions.
In response, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958 to establish university centers devoted to the study of specific areas and languages: Southeast Asia, Africa and the whole of Eastern Europe, for example. Under the auspices of the Office (later the Department) of Education’s Title VI program, these National Resource Centers, or NRCs, were charged with bolstering U.S. security through research support, area and language instruction, and community outreach.
Now, more than 50 years after Sputnik, 125 successors of those NDEA centers on 51 campuses have trained most of the country’s high-level area studies experts in disciplines ranging from history and political science to law, as well as strategic regional languages.
With eight centers UW–Madison houses the most NRCs in the country, the same as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington-Seattle. Assembled within the International Institute, a joint venture of the Division of International Studies and the College of Letters and Science, these centers together span the globe.
For many on campus, NRCs are synonymous with the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) graduate fellowships (originally NDEA fellowships) that have helped the university train thousands of world area specialists in the past 50 years. Indeed, more than half of the centers’ federal funding supports this.