English and Asian studies professor both a world-traveler and world-changer


Dr. Walter Hakala’s life experiences sound like a blend of an action-adventure novel, an espionage thriller and a coming-of-age epic.

If someone asked Hakala, an assistant professor of English and Asian studies, where he grew up, they should prepare for a long story. He’s lived everywhere, from Chicago to Peshawar. He went to school in Virginia, India and Pennsylvania. He’s had experience with eight different languages and had to get used to constantly moving to different countries for his father’s job.

But his father didn’t work just any job, he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

When Hakala was younger, he was told his father’s job “was stamping visas and that it was very, very boring,” he said. He had no idea his father was a part of the CIA.

“But he would also go away for two weeks at a time, I remember, saying he was going to buy carpets. What he probably was doing was distributing weapons to Mujahideen who later became the Taliban.”

Hakala was born in India and lived there for a couple months before returning to the United States with his family.

His father, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, was doing research in India when Hakala was born.

Hakala next lived in Chicago, then moved to Virginia when his father became a part of the CIA. Hakala’s family then moved back to India when he was three years old and lived there for three and a half more years.

The next leg of Hakala’s journey was to Peshawar, the Afghan border in Pakistan.

He lived there for two years, “just down the street from Osama Bin Laden... [and] other people who are now considered to be terrorists, but back then they were on the same side as the U.S.,” he said.

He said Peshawar was the most interesting place he visited but hasn’t returned there since his childhood.

After leaving Peshawar, Hakala returned to the U.S. and started experiencing life as a “self-aware being.”

He spent the fourth grade in the United States, moved to Morocco for a year and a half and then returned to Virginia where he spent the remainder of his childhood.

Before his adolescence, he was too young to fully absorb all that his travels had to offer him, but he still wondered about his father’s job.

During his youth, he believed what his father was doing was for the greater good, but as he grew up, he started questioning what his parents told him.

He found out his father was in the CIA right before his family was evacuated from Morocco during the first Gulf War. That’s when he had a “political awakening.”

He realized he wanted to follow a different path from his father. He attended the University of Virginia studying astronomy and physics as an undergraduate.

He also took a Hindi class and an Indian history class, and later decided to major in Asian studies without ever looking back.

After graduation, he spent three years in India to pursue a Master’s degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He then returned to the U.S. and received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Hakala also calls himself a “language evangelist.”

Throughout his life and course of study, Hakala has had experience with eight different languages: English, French, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Korean, Pashto and Arabic.

He said familiarizing himself with multiple languages has given him the courage to travel to many more places.

“If one is serious about studying a foreign culture, one can’t get by just speaking English,” he said. “One has to make some effort… to learn another language.”

Hakala has been teaching at UB for five and a half years and is always excited when students are passionate about the subjects he teaches and “loves” when students take more than one class with him.

“If they’re freshmen, I have four years to work with them and… send them places to go and learn languages, and go and travel and win scholarships so that they can be far superior to me if they decide they want to become experts [within the field],” he said.

Hakala said he enjoys working with international students who speak different languages and have “vast access” to academic materials that are available only to students who speak languages other than English.

Aside from his students’ accomplishments, Hakala has had many of his own.

He recently published his first book, Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia.

He is currently researching the history of dictionaries in India from 1750 to present day. He looks into how children learn the languages of India over time and books that teach children these languages.

At UB, Hakala is currently teaching Walking Dictionaries, a UB Seminar on how human beings organize information and how they’ve done it over the last 5000 years. He also teaches Romance Traditions in Asia, a course on how love stories traveled in Asia throughout time.

He will be teaching courses in the spring semester called Islam and Literature, about the relationship between religion and literature, and India in the Traveler’s Eye, about the history of India through travel writing.

“Hakala is a dynamic teacher and devoted mentor,” said Dr. Stacy Hubbard, an associate English professor and one of Hakala’s colleagues. “He spends long hours in his office talking one-on-one with students about career paths and travel opportunities… inspiring students to study off-the-beaten-path topics such as South East Asian pop culture and Urdu… The enthusiasm and success of his students testify to the enormous impact he's having.”

While the publication of his book is a huge accomplishment, he loves to see his students follow their passions.

“The most fulfilling thing for me is having my students travel and then return and tell me about it,” Hakala said.

Jimmy Corra is a news staff writer and can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com