Friday, April 1, 2011

Graduate Student of the Month: Nicole Willock

Nicole Willock
Religious Studies and Central Eurasian Studies
April 2011

When Nicole Willock was 18, she didn’t know that studying Chinese would change her life. Currently a graduate student in Religious Studies and Central Eurasian Studies at IU, Willock said her desire to research Tibetan culture began when she was studying abroad as a young adult.

“It’s a passion for me to study and I think as a grad student you have to have that passion and tenacity to keep going. An important part of where that comes from is my own personal experiences studying abroad,” said Willock.

Her adventures began when Willock traveled to China to study Chinese at Sichuan University and film at the Beijing film academy. She also visited Tibet for three months and that experience in particular motivated Willock to want to understand Tibet’s place in China and how those diverse cultures interact.

After a year and a half in China, she began a Master’s degree program with a major in Chinese literature and a minor in Tibetan language at Hamburg University in Germany. She also spent time teaching English as a second language for the university and various language companies.

“At the time, I knew I loved to teach and in particular, to teach about China, but it was hard to marry those two in Germany,” she said. “Up to that point, I was ambivalent about being a professor, but I knew I wanted to study Tibet and the best place to study Tibetan is IU; it has one of the best departments in the country. My advisor Dr. Elliot Sperling speaks Tibetan and uses both Tibetan and Chinese language source materials. He’s one of only a few people who can do that.” She also works closely with Dr. Gendun Rabsal from the IU Department of Central Eurasian Studies, who was instrumental in helping Willock select source materials and the subject of her dissertation.

The religious studies part of her doctoral work came from her deep interest in intellectual history. Willock said she likes understanding how people think, and in Tibetan society, those intellectuals tended to be religious figures. Taking classes in religious studies gave Willock the foundation she needed to approach her doctoral research.

“I love Chinese culture and Tibetan history and sometimes it’s a clash and sometimes it’s harmonious. The paradoxes have driven me to figure that out and it still does. I have friends there, both Tibetan and Chinese, and those personal connections and experiences have driven my work,” Willock said.

Willock’s work on Tibet is hagiographical, she said, meaning she studies the lives of saints. “Hagio” means saints or holy people, and “graphy” essentially means to study. Her dissertation takes a multidisciplinary approach to the life and writings of a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and monk named Tseten Zhabdrung Jigme Rigpe Lodro (1910-1985). Tseten Zhabdrung is interesting as an intellectual figure, Willock said, because he was well respected by both Tibetans and Chinese.

In 2008, Willock travelled to China and Tibet for field research on a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship. Based at Qinghai Nationalities University (in Xining, Qinghai Province), she traveled to six monasteries where Tseten Zhabdrung had resided. She also interviewed former students from when he taught classes at secular universities, several of whom now have important intellectual positions in Tibet today as deans, research scholars, writers and editors.

This semester, Willock is revising her dissertation while teaching a course on the politics of religion in modern China at the University of Boulder in Colorado. She plans to defend this summer and graduate in August.

Fluent in German, Tibetan, Chinese, Willock has received a number of awards including the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation. She has presented her research in the US, Canada and Europe and currently holds her the Department of Religious Studies’ Dissertation Fellowship. Additionally, Willock is the only graduate student participating in a five-year seminar on Tibetan literature taking place in the American Academy of Religion at the University of Virginia. The seminar focuses on how Tibetan literature is seen in the academy and in general.

Media Contacts:
Erika Lee, Director of Communications, The University Graduate School,
Angela Jones, The IU Graduate and Professional Student Organization,

The Graduate and Professional Student Organization and the University Graduate School would like to congratulate Nicole Willock on receiving the GPSO/UGS Recognition Award. Students selected for this award were nominated by a faculty member from within their department, and selected by the GPSO and UGS for excellence in their graduate studies at Indiana University.