Former professor Sim, 'a true original,' dies at 35

By Matt Won

Former International Studies professor Soek-Fang Sim died last week after a struggle with breast cancer. She was 35.

Her death came as a surprise to many in the community, including some of her former students still at Macalester. Romina Takimoto ’08 said she was “devastated.””I am so shocked at her death,” Takimoto said. “I loved Professor Sim, she was someone that was a big support and really believed in me.”

Professors and students alike remember Sim as an engaged and active educator. “She really cared about her teaching, she really cared about her scholarship,” said Humanities Media and Cultural Studies Professor Clay Steinman, who served on the search committee that hired Sim.

Sim joined the Macalester community in 2003 in a joint position teaching classes that fused international and media studies, and were cross-listed between the International Studies and HMCS Departments. She left the school in 2006 when her contract was not renewed. The search continues for her replacement.

One of Sim’s former students, Claudia Leung ’08, offered a portrait of Sim and her work after Macalester. “I went to visit Soek-Fang Sim in her home in San Diego on a beautiful Sunday morning this past August,” Leung wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “We sat on her porch in the sunshine and had bagels and coffee as we talked about her latest draft of a book on Al Jazeera, and her research in Qatar, witnessing the planning for their new international English-language channel. She showed me a book she’d been reading on cancer-fighting foods, and her subsequent newfound interest in organic chemistry.

“She asked about the people she missed at Macalester, and I gave her a care package that a few of her students had put together for her. She laughed and got a kick out of the variety of things we had thrown together, from durian wafers to the Buddha finger puppet which she said she would use to demonstrate a theoretical perspective in one of her classes. She expressed how gratifying it was to have lasting relationships with her students-her favorite part about teaching.”

Teaching classes like “Comparative Global News: From CNN to al-Jazeera” and “Media & Democracy in Asia,” Sim brought the strengths of her in-depth research into the classroom. According to her biography on the HMCS web site, these included: “issues of power, ideology, and identity, and specifically how social institutions are not only sustained by institutional efforts but are increasingly constituted through everyday popular media cultures.”

“She just completed a fine manuscript on Arab Media and Al-Jazeera,” Sociology Professor and friend Khaldoun Samman said. “If only she could see it come to press.”

Her perspective and academic background also contributed to the Macalester community. She was the only faculty member without a degree from an American or Canadian University. She earned her Ph.D from the University of London.

Sim’s dedicated mentorship of her students was one of her hallmarks. “Soek-Fang was a true original. I’ve never known anyone like her,” International Studies professor and Sim colleague Nadya Nedelsky said. “She had an amazing energy and generosity of spirit, which she brought not only the classroom but to every space around her. She was also devoted to her students: almost every time I walked past her office, she was in animated conversation with one.”

A number of students testified to that devotion. “She was passionate about what she did and was determined to share her energy with those who took interest,” Amanda Coen ’08 said. “She exceeded her professional responsibilities by inviting classes over for dinner, encouraging students to come to her office to chat and enjoy Singaporean snacks, and always being upbeat despite personal difficulties and institutional challenges.”

This devotion endured through her departure from Macalester and her subsequent battle with cancer, as Sim continued to write recommendations and give support and feedback for Coen and other students.

“I sent her an email and attached a copy of a proposal I wrote for a fellowship,” Coen said. “Despite her poor health, I received an email about a week later in support of my project with a page worth of suggestions. Her comments made it obvious she had spent a significant amount of time thinking about my project and how to strengthen it so it would be as successful as possible.”

Sim was an accomplished and celebrated scholar. She won the Swire-Cathay Pacific Inter-Asia Ph.D scholarship at the University of London, and her work on “Obliterating the Political: One-party Ideological Dominance and the Personalization of News in Singapore” was selected as a Top Paper at the Journalism Studies Interest Group’s New York Convention.

Sim’s talents, however, extended beyond her teaching and scholarship. “She was, herself, an accomplished musician,” Nedelsky said. “I remember arriving for one of our I.S. senior dinners at the alumni house to find her sitting at their baby grand piano, enthralling those assembled with the beauty of her playing.”

Takimoto remembered her as someone “that was always trying to do something new-like belly dancing or learning Arabic.”

Sim’s death also came as a “shock” to Jessica Hawkinson ’08. “Whether leading impassioned and challenging discussions in her classroom, or carrying Chinese lanterns around campus and down Snelling Avenue for Chinese New Year, she lived life to its fullest,” Hawkinson said.

Leung reflected, “Our talk on the porch reminded me of all the things that I will miss and want to remember about her: her humor, strength, and true concern for her students’ success, and her ability to draw an intellectual point or lesson from any situation without taking herself too seriously. I wish I had the opportunity to get to know her better, because of the sharp, ever-critical, witty and deeply caring person I knew her to be.”

Editor in Chief Matthew Stone contributed reporting.