Professor Yoon Sun Lee holds the title of the Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of English in Wellesley’s English department, but she has also been instrumental in founding the college’s Asian American Studies minor. Despite starting off her career concentrating on 18th and 19th century British fiction, Lee has dedicated a significant portion of her life, both personally and professionally, to studying the Asian American experience.
However, the attraction to literature started much earlier than her identification as Asian American did. Ever since she was a small girl, Lee knew that she loved literature. She recalls, “I always [enjoyed] reading. When I was a kid, I loved to go to the library and took out a great stack of books and read them, especially during summer vacations.”
She explained that this early fondness for reading set the stage for her present love of literature.
“I love to read, think and write about literature because when you do that, you can contemplate on anything, as literature, and especially novels, includes everything. It includes politics, it includes history, it covers all aspects of human life,” said Lee.
As an undergraduate at Harvard College, Lee decided to major in English. Despite her love for literature and writing, one of the most difficult decisions of Lee’s life was deciding to pursue a PhD in English and become a professor or to pursue law. But she ultimately chose teaching over law because of the independence it offered.
“What appeals to me about becoming a professor is that you [eventually] get to not only study but also teach the things that you are interested in,” she said. “Also important is that I have a lot of independence in choosing what to work on and which questions to investigate.”
Lee’s career and works are clear demonstrations of how she has exercised her intellectual freedom and investigated the diverse fields of her interests. Her research and teaching span two areas: British 18th and 19th century fiction and Asian American literature. The latter, in particular, reflects her identity as an Asian American whose experience was molded by both Korean and American cultures, or in her own words, “my two lives.”
“I grew up on the East Coast, mostly in Virginia and South Carolina. My family was usually the only Korean family, as in those areas there were not many Asian Americans,” she said. “In addition to that, my parents wanted me and my sister to assimilate into American culture and they weren’t that concerned with having us retain our Korean roots. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have any identity as an Asian American until much later in my life.”
It was in her last year at graduate school that Lee came to identify herself as an Asian American.
“When I took my first teaching job in California right after I finished graduate school, I met some friends at the Claremont McKenna College. They helped me understand that I am an Asian American and that there [is] actually all [this] literature written by Asian Americans like me and also about Asian Americans like me. And that was when I became interested in learning more about it,” she said.
Since then, Asian American Studies and Asian American literature in particular have become a crucial part of Lee’s passion and work.
“Teaching Asian American literature really nurtured my passion for this subject and after teaching it for several years, I decided that I [wanted] to research and write a book on it, so that’s why my second book was on Asian American literature,” she said.
Lee’s attachment to the studies of Asian American experience extends beyond the area of literacy research. She has been involved with the Wellesley Asian Alliance for as long as she has taught at Wellesley and, together with the organization, has worked restlessly to promote the Asian American Studies program.
Three years ago, Lee left her position as Director of the American Studies department to help create the Asian American Studies minor. Although her home is currently in the English department, Lee teaches courses in Asian American literature every year and also works as the de-facto chair of the program.
Reflecting back on her career decisions, Lee acknowledges that becoming a professor has, in its own way, solidified her own identity as an Asian American.
She said, “I believe teaching Asian American Studies at Wellesley to students is something extremely rewarding because it helps me— and hopefully also my students— understand a lot about myself: the way that I think, the way I respond to things, the way that people respond to me, and even the things that I am interested in.”