Meet the new director of the Asian American Studies Program -- Professor Erika Lee.
Dr. Lee is an associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.
She's also an award winning scholar and a founding member of the Asian American Studies Program.
She talks to us about what graduates of the Program are doing now, whether she's a tea or coffee person and what profession--other than her own--she would like to attempt.
When did you know you wanted to be an academic?
I think it would have to be when I was in college. I went to Tufts University, a small liberal college, and they had these amazing opportunities to teach. There was a junior-year program where you could teach a freshman seminar, and the topic that year was the Civil Rights Movement. Not only was it transformative intellectually, but to be able to process this knowledge and teach it brought home to me how much I loved that combination.
Before that I had, like any other college student, drifted between various goals—ranging from international business to pre-law—and at that time I hadn’t really fully decided. This is in the late 80s, and Asian American Studies was just beginning to be a recognizable field that one could be trained in. I think I’m one of the first generation that can say I was trained as an Asian Americanist.
But at my school there was no such thing as Asian American Studies, there was no such thing as Ethnic Studies. There were certain faculty members who offered courses, of course, but I developed my own major—Comparative Ethnic Studies.
I think that was another step in that realization—that this was something I could do, and that I wanted to do.
If you weren’t a professor, what would you be? What other profession would you like to attempt?
A lot of my research looks at immigration policy, and the ways in which race and class and gender are built into our nation’s laws regulating immigration. And so I would be an immigration lawyer.
I sometimes feel I should be doing that, rather than sitting in my comfortable office at the University. I think that the people who are fighting those fights in the courts, on the streets, and in the back-rooms of the Department of Homeland Security are the real heroes in this line of work.
But you’re providing them with the theory they need to…
Or at least with the documentation of how this is a larger pattern; how it is related to larger issues—and certainly about the institutionalization of race. Racial discrimination in immigration is still a very persistent factor.
I’m not willing to go back to get my law degree though!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Teaching. Teaching. I also really love research and writing too, so I guess it’s the perfect job for me because as a historian, I’m very much interested in telling untold stories. And not just telling them, but also making them central to these larger narratives of what it means to be an American. That type of historical inclusion I see as directly related to practical inclusion—socially, economically, politically. So I see it as a very…that it’s not this esoteric intellectual exercise, but something that is very relevant practically.
Research continues to be very invigorating to me, and where I see that I can have some relevance. Teaching is that same sort of idea, but put into practice—where I can really, tangibly engage with students and think about these issues.
What would you say to those students who are thinking, ‘Well, Asian American Studies won’t really help me in grad school, or in my future career’..?
I’ve been here long enough to have mentored many of the first students to have taken Asian American Studies at this University. I know what they’re doing ten years down the line. And I would tell those students that they should look at what those before them have done; how Asian American Studies has prepared them to go on to many different careers where an interest and an expertise in diversity-issues, multiculturalism and social justice, have been intrinsically important to their professional development.
Things like teaching; like non-profit organizational work, law, political science. Many of our students go into the arts. There’s a student who was in our Program before we were even officially a Program. She created her own major in Ethnic Studies and is now a grad student here, in American Studies. She’s also a playwright and a spoken word-artist.
There are students who went on to do academic advising. There are others who work for international NGOs, helping to manage refugee resettlement. We’ve had students go on to do Teach for America, go on to law school—so there’s a broad range of professions, that are increasingly looking for expertise in diversity and social justice issues.
I also think it’s a great way to learn something that adds not only professionally but adds personally as well. So students can feel their education is relevant to their own lives.
Complete the sentence: 'In my down-time I enjoy…'
What down-time? (laughs)
In my down-time I enjoy playing with my kids, swimming, walking around the lake and reading the Harry Potter books.
Ice cream or cake?
Tea or coffee?
Well that just depends on the time of day :)
*You can find more on the Asian American Studies Program Minor, right here.