Take Five with Victor Cha ’83, SIPA’88, GSAS’94

Cha pic


Victor Cha ’83, SIPA’88, GSAS’94 holds the D.S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and School of Foreign Service and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He has been a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. since 2009. Cha was the director for Asian affairs on the White House National Security Council as part of the George W. Bush administration from 2004 to 2007. He is the co-editor of the Contemporary Asia series at Columbia University Press, and is author of five books; the most recent is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System (Princeton University Press, 2016).

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

This depends on how one defines “arrived.” I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital and lived on 110th and Riverside Drive until I was 5. So my first arrival at Columbia was as a toddler (my dad, Moon Young Cha, graduated GSAS’59, BUS’61), jumping down the Low Steps in front of Alma Mater. My little brother smashed his head against one of the fountains on College Walk and still has a scar to show for it. When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I had long hair and liked disco music (I have destroyed all of the pictures). A number of students from my high school also entered Columbia at that time, but I was not particularly close to them. I was excited to meet all types of people, given the small graduating class that I had come from. I recall sitting in student lounges in Furnald, Hartley and John Jay during Orientation week, checking out as many different student initiatives as I could.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I did not have a dorm assigned to me in the first month of school, so I sacked out on the floors of newly made friends’ rooms in Carman — they were from California, New Jersey and Illinois. Eventually I was assigned to a single in John Jay on a floor with upperclassmen and felt a bit out of touch with all my Carman buddies. Little did I appreciate at the time how rare it was for a freshman to get a single!

What class do you most remember and why?

There are so many but let me choose three: 1) My first semester of Contemporary Civilization: I did horribly (my only C+ in four years). I thought, “This stuff is not for me” — little did I know then that I would eventually do a Ph.D. in political science; 2) Art Hum: I just loved this course. I had never taken anything like it and soaked up every minute of class. I spent entire weekends that sophomore semester at museums. I stayed up all night before the final exam talking with friends about the works we had studied, and overslept, showing up for the exam 20 minutes late (I still did really well); and 3) Introduction to International Relations: This was a large, 100-plus class taught by a famous IR professor, Robert Jervis. He was from Berkeley and wore turtlenecks all the time, which I thought strange. Fast forward eight years and Professor Jervis would become the chair of my Ph.D. dissertation committee in the political science department at Columbia. Today he is my colleague and a good friend.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I had two favorite spots: the veranda in front of Kent Hall, where I would take study breaks and stare at The Thinker; and the stone bench to the right of Low Library, which had the best vista on who was hanging out on the Steps. I also loved my senior year room in Kappa Delta Rho House, where we were charter members of the new chapter at Columbia.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Probably would have tried harder in that first semester of CC.