Skip to content Skip to navigation

Alumni Spotlight: Zoë Gioja

Zoë  Gioja hiking with view of Seoul

Zoe Gioja in South Korea

Courtesy of Zoë Gioja
Jul 27 2020

Posted In:


Zoë Gioja, M.A. '19, graduated last year with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies. During her time at Stanford, Zoë’s research centered on the history of the Women’s Bureau in Korea, which was established under U.S. military government following the end of World War II. “The research topic I landed on was not the same one I came with […] I think I was interested, even more than I was aware of, in the relationships between American and Korean women and their associated organizations,” Zoë explains.

Her interest in Korean history began during her undergraduate studies at Smith College. Zoë was focused on European history, specifically Medieval, late 19th, and early 20th century history, until she took a class called “World War II in East Asia.” The course and her professor, Marnie Anderson, completely changed her trajectory. “I had this moment thinking, ‘Why have I been focusing on Europe my entire education? What have I been missing?'” Zoë recalls.

After graduating from Smith College, Zoë wanted to learn more about South Korea. She was selected as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and taught conversational English for a year in a girls’ middle school in Mokpo. “The Fulbright ETA program in South Korea is very robust—they have a big orientation, they want you to do a homestay, learn the language—and those aspects drew me to that experience.” Zoë says. After returning to the US and working as fellowships adviser at the University of Notre Dame, she found out about the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships program. Zoë recalls, “That was the moment when I felt like, maybe I can go to graduate school. […] So that’s what led me from South Korea to wanting to study Korea more during my master’s degree.”

While studying at CEAS, Zoë credits her advisor, Professor Yumi Moon, with helping find her research topic and encouraging her to look at the American military government period (1945-48) on the southern half of the Korean peninsula. Zoë discovered that an alumna from Smith College headed the Women’s Bureau in Korea, founded by the American military government during its tenure there. “I didn’t know that the Women’s Bureau even existed before this. That’s not something that makes it into English-language American military government history, and I hadn’t know about the existence of this person. Her name is Helen Begley Nixon. That became the moment where I found [a] great source. Her archive belonged to the archive that I actually worked at as an undergraduate – the Sohpia Smith collection—so that connection was exciting.”

Zoë was also able to conduct research at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford, which has a robust collection of papers on that era, one of the biggest outside the National Archives. “It’s really cool to get to go into the archives at Hoover,” Zoë notes. She enjoyed having the opportunity to utilize archives right on Stanford’s campus.

Last academic year, Zoë supplemented her program at CEAS by studying Korean intensively at the interuniversity program in the Academy of East Asian Studies at Sungkyunkwan University. That program was founded to linguistically prepare students from outside of Korea to conduct research in Korean.  “Every single week you’re reading […] a journal article, or a primary source that’s related to your research,” Zoë explains, noting the immense benefits this had both for her linguistic development and her research.  She had been planning to resume her studies in January 2020 after winter break when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in South Korea, and made the difficult decision to return home. Her program moved online for all students due to the pandemic, so she participated remotely.

To cope with the pandemic, Zoë has been holding regular meetings with her CEAS friends and doing virtual activities together and playing video games together like Animal Crossing.

Next year, Zoë will pursue a Ph.D. in history at Stanford University, where she will continue her current research on women’s organizations in post-World War II Korea. “I looked a lot at the legacy of the Women’s Bureau: did it continue to have an impact and if so, how, once the military government left? Especially, too, in terms of the Korean War and how […] the women’s organizations that were already in Korea and were started by Korean women during the colonial period and after, and how […] the connections that those organization made with American women’s organizations continued. That’s my biggest area of focus and I find that very interesting. A lot of my findings show that a lot of them did continue and stay in contact even into the Korean War. […] I’ll be continuing to look at that topic, but with a slightly more expansive lens, […]thinking about some of these broader issues of Cold War democracy and post-World War II imperialism and what were those women’s roles within that context.”

As she looks back on her time at the CEAS program, Zoë says, “I think for me in particular, I feel incredibly lucky because of the funding I received from CEAS. It’s what made it possible for me to even get a graduate degree at all at the master’s level. I don’t think I could have gone straight to PhD with my preparation before, so that made the difference for me in terms of my academic career. I’m deeply, deeply grateful to CEAS. I also just loved getting to do research more than I ever thought I would.”