This article originally appeared in the winter 2018 issue of Harker Magazine.
Words by Vikki Bowes-Mok
When Jacob Bongers ’07 was a young boy, he would visit his grandfather in Geleen, The Netherlands, and they would trek to ancient Roman sites in southern Holland and France.
“During these trips, I marveled at the Roman architecture and developed a deep interest in making archaeological discoveries to learn more about the past,” remembered Bongers with a smile. “The relationship between my grandfather and me was absolutely critical for developing my passion for archaeology.”
Bongers is grateful to have realized his passion so young and has taken that curiosity to the highest levels of academia as he prepares to receive his Ph.D. in archaeology from UCLA.
When Bongers joined Harker in high school, he had to adapt to the academic rigor, but his focus on archaeology remained steady.
He was determined to gain some hands-on experience, so he searched online for opportunities. He found a dig on the Archaeological Institute of America website and immediately knew he had to participate. So when he was 16 years old, he packed up his bags and went to Portugal to work on a Roman site near the border of Spain.
“It was the first time I’d traveled by myself and I was so excited,” said Bongers with energy bubbling from his voice. “I absolutely loved the experience – meeting people, exploring the site and uncovering the past.”
As he ponders his past, he reflects about how important it is to remain open to all opportunities, listen deeply to what brings you joy and not feel pressured to choose the “right path.”
“When I went to USC, I majored in archaeology, but I minored in game design, and I’m so glad I did that,” said Bongers. “Every experience you have helps shape the person you become, so always explore and be open because you never know what will ignite your passion.”
His intellectual curiosity and passion for archaeology put him on a path that has led him around the world. He has field experience in Portugal, Chile, Peru and Ethiopia, and he even met his wife, Ioana Dumitru, on a dig in Oman.
“Jacob is simply one of the most dedicated, bright and hard-working young scholars that I have ever known,” said Charles Stanish, director and professor emeritus at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. “He does not posture or play games; he loves intellectual debate and is open and extremely generous with colleagues.”
Bongers’ academic career started at USC, where he received his B.A. in interdisciplinary archaeology, summa cum laude, in 2011. After a few digs and some soul searching, he landed at UCLA to work on his master’s and now Ph.D. He won four extramural grants at the beginning of his graduate career in 2013: a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, National Geographic Young Explorers Grant and a Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid.
“There is no question that he will be at the top of his field in a very short time,” said Stanish. “With most students, it is necessary to push them to think more broadly; with Jacob, we actually had to reel in some of his enthusiasm to focus on more manageable topics.”
As Bongers is putting the final touches on his dissertation, he is pondering his next step but has the gift of focus that will help guide him.
Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.